Déjà Review: this review was first published in May 2002 and the recording is still available.
Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849)
Piano Concerto No 1 in E minor, Op 11 (1830)
Piano Concerto No 2 in F minor, Op 21 (1829)
Krystian Zimerman (piano)
Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra/Carlo Maria Giulini
Deutsche Grammophon 463 662-2 
These performances are without doubt true classics, and their reappearance one day in the ‘Originals’ series was, frankly, inevitable. Music journalists the world over greeted these discs (they were originally spread across two LPs, with the Andante spianato et Grand Polonaise brillante as fill-up to the F minor) with rapturous praise, some even daring to suggest they were the greatest performances of these pieces in the history of recorded music to date. The sublime partnership of the still-young Zimerman (he was 19 when he won the 1975 Warsaw International Competition, so still in his middle-twenties when they were taped) with the ever-suave and aristocratic Giulini on the rostrum really was a perfect recipe.
We now have a very interesting situation, in that Zimerman has since re-recorded these concertos. That was in 1999, to mark the 150th anniversary of the composer’s death. He directed the hand-picked Polish Festival Orchestra from the keyboard on DG 459 684-2 and offered a completely fresh insight into both concertos. These later performances divided his critics as much as the earlier ones (those under consideration here) united them! The new version was spectacularly indulgent in matters of dynamic range, rubato and attention to detail (not least in the orchestra, whose role in these concertos is usually dismissed as nominal) and, incredible to relate, added five minutes to the run-time of each concerto, rendering the pair too long to fit onto a single CD! A majority of opinion takes the view that the expressive freedom and exaggeration of the later recording is completely over the top, unwarranted, eccentric and mannered. A minority (and I happen to reside in that camp) finds the 1999 performances almost completely convincing, and profoundly musical, albeit so intimately personal that they could not ever be regarded as definitive or wholly authentic.
Now that the original performances with Giulini are back in circulation, we are able to compare Zimerman’s first and second thoughts. My own view is that the two recordings are literally incomparable, and that having both versions on our shelves illuminates this wonderful music as few others can. If pressed to voice an opinion on this earlier version – as I am obliged to do for the sake of this review – I have to say that I, personally, find the young man’s view uncomfortably plain and very nearly rigid compared to his rethinking of 19 or 20 years later. They are of course still the beautifully moulded, elegant and glittering performances they always were, and the incredible clarity of Zimerman’s fingerwork is as much in evidence (and every bit as impressive) as in his later version. But dare I suggest that Zimerman’s later view is so utterly new and so completely thought-provoking, that the world has yet to take note and follow?
Whatever your view of the first or the second Zimerman recordings, this re-release of the 1979/80 tapes offers us truly inspired performances of this masterful music. The only question (the answer to which we will never agree) is whether Zimerman subsequently bettered them.
Peter J Lawson
Help us financially by purchasing from