CHOPIN:  Piano Concerto No. 1 in E Minor, Op. 11.  Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Minor, Op. 21
Krystian Zimerman, pianist-conductor/Polish Festival Orchestra
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 459 684  (F) (DDD)  TT:  46:00 & 35:44
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FrÈdÈric Chopin did not write orchestral music aside from accompaniments for his two piano concertos and a few minor works.  The consensus was  that his orchestral writing was  inadequate, so much so that several other composers re-orchestrated accompaniments for the concertos, and sometimes  the lengthy first-movement  opening orchestral tuttis were truncated.  Pianist Krystian Zimerman felt there is much of merit in these accompaniments and to prove his point organized the "Polish Festival Orchestra" consisting of all-Polish musicians ("It's just much easier when you can all communicate in the same language").  The objective was to present this music with particular attention to orchestral detail.  After countless hours of rehearsing, Zimerman and his band are, at the time of this writing,  on a 40-concert tour of major music centers playing the two concertos; this recording was made during an 8-day interlude in August 1999.  These are the longest performances ever recorded of these concertos (the First is as long as an uncut performance of the Rachmaninoff Third!). The two  would not fit onto one CD so each has  its own.  DG, to its credit, is selling the two for the price of one.

While I can appreciate Zimerman's dedication to his chosen task, the end result -- while distinctive in its own way -- is rather disappointing.  No question that the accompaniment is focused and sensitive; you will here felicities of nuance unheard in any other performance.  Exaggerated pauses abound; a dreamy atmosphere pervades.  Doubtless  never before has there been such an intimate  interplay  between soloist and orchestra  in these concertos.  But somewhere along the line  excitement has diminished, particularly in the first concerto .  Chopin was a master pianist who composed some of the most difficult music  ever written for the instrument, particularly in the first concerto.  Zimerman's studied slow tempos and overly introspective approach virtually  eliminate keyboard  brilliance.  One example of Zimerman's leisurely approach is the brief  three-bar cadenza towards the end of the second movement of the first concerto.  This takes 33 seconds in the new recording; Zimerman's live 1979 performance  with the Concertgebouw took but 20, rather standard for this very brief idyllic interlude.  The second concerto (actually the first composed) isn't as virtuosic as the first. The Larghetto second movement played by Zimerman  is just too slow -- 11:06 -- compared to Artur Rubinstein's 8:34, Alfred Cortot's 8:50; even the aberrant Samson Francois plays it in but 8:34.

Perhaps others  will find this new perspective on the Chopin concertos of   more interest than  I do.  For the Concerto No. 1 I'd prefer the first Argerich recording, Emil Gilels, Artur Rubinstein's second recording, or the remarkable Yevgeny Kissin 1984 live performance.  For Concerto No. 2, try Vladimir Ashenazy, Claudio Arrau or Artur Rubinstein.

If Zimerman is so dedicated to Chopin's works for piano and orchestra why didn't he also perform at least one of his other works for the combination ( Fantasy on Polish Airs, Op. 13,  Krakowiak, Op. 14, Grande Polonaise, Op. 22,  or  the early Variations on Mozart's "La ci darem la mano," Op. 2.)?  As it was necessary for two CDs to accommodate the concertos there would have been sufficient room for these as well.

R.E.B. (Nov. 1999)