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 Recording of the Week  Krystian Zimerman and Simon Rattle perform music by Lutosławski

If for some reason I were ever asked to compile my list of favourite twentieth-century piano concertos, I'm fairly certain that the one by Witold Lutosławski would feature highly amongst my choices. Written for the composer's fellow Pole, Krystian Zimerman, and first performed at the Salzburg Festival in August 1988, it's a vibrant, mesmerising work, and one that I always delight in listening to.

Krystian Zimerman
Krystian Zimerman

Zimerman has recorded the work previously, with the composer himself conducting, and it's a pleasure to hear him again in this new recording, with Simon Rattle conducting the Berliner Philharmoniker. Having lived with this piece for almost thirty years, Zimerman is an ideal advocate, and sounds completely authoritative in every bar, with dazzling virtuosity aplenty. The second movement in particular is a real tour de force, with fiendishly scampering passagework, performed flawlessly throughout. I was also struck by the beauty of sound that Zimerman brings to his playing: the cadenza that begins the third movement is stunning in its rapt, quiet intensity, with a delicately searching tone that I found utterly captivating.

Having such a distinguished ensemble performing the piece is also quite something: Zimerman's expert performance is matched every step of the way by the Berlin players, and Rattle draws some fantastic sounds from them: from the pulsating woodwind at the very opening of the work, to a wonderfully plangent cello solo in the fourth movement, there's some marvellous playing on offer. The end of the concerto in particular is spectacular: as the piece dashes to its conclusion, I love the way Rattle brings out the string and wind glissandos in the final couple of bars; it becomes an ecstatic shriek, like a kind of cathartic wail of exhilaration. It's a great ending, and is superbly realised here.

Also included is a performance of Lutosławski's Symphony No. 2. This piece was written between 1965 and 1967, and makes use of a technique described by Lutosławski as “limited aleatoricism”, where performers are given musical material to play, but without any specific beat being prescribed, thereby introducing an element of improvisation and chance to the performance (as it happens, the same technique is employed at the start of the Piano Concerto, where the upper woodwind are given material without bar lines and simply marked “Ad Lib.”).

Of course what this means in practice is that every performance ends up being slightly different, and it is this feeling of creative spontaneity that very much comes across here. The first movement, marked Hésitant, is divided into a series of episodes, each for a different instrumental group within the orchestra, and I was constantly intrigued by the sounds that these different combinations produced. The second movement (given the performance marking Direct), offers more of an opportunity for the whole orchestra to play together, but even here there are some magical touches of orchestration within individual sections, particularly some shimmering string writing set above glowing brass chords, and the Berliners bring a sheen to their sound that few other orchestras can match.

Elsewhere, though, a raw power emanates from the orchestra, especially in some of the outbursts towards the end of the symphony from the brass and percussion, something that I don’t always expect to hear from this most refined of ensembles, and it was fascinating to hear how Rattle coaxes such sounds from his players. Unlike the end of the Piano Concerto, however, the symphony ends in a more subdued manner. I hardly dared to breathe as the hushed dirge of lower strings gradually faded away to nothing. Another remarkable performance on a quite outstanding disc.

Krystian Zimerman & Sir Simon Rattle: Lutoslawski

Krystian Zimerman (piano), Berliner Philharmoniker, Simon Rattle

Available Formats: CD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC