Whichever way you look at it this is a remarkable performance, and the result of deep thought, investigation and study by one of the greatest pianists in the world. There are things here that are musically provocative, technically extraordinary (those utterly controlled runs) and emotionally thrilling. Rattle goes with Zimerman with enthusiasm, adding his own thoughts, and the resulting whole is fresh, vibrant and revealed anew, as if an Old Master has had the varnish controversially removed and colours are revealed that were unexpected. If you can only afford one Brahms 1st Piano Concerto recording, maybe you should go for Nelson Freire with Chailly on Decca, where it is conveniently paired with the 2nd. That is a wonderful recording too, as great as any, and which strikes at the heart of the work, and Brahms' own humanity shines through the varnish. But if you love the work, and want an alternative view Zimerman will reveal new aspects that sing, dance and resound in your head long after the recording has been turned off.
This was nothing if not well prepared. Zimerman is said to have listened to eighty other recordings to prepare his own interpretation. There's no sign this led to Brahms overkill, surprisingly. And Sir Simon has an excellent Brahms pedigree, having recorded this concerto successfully for EMI, I think with Andsnes. There is also his DVD where Barenboim is the soloist.
For my money, this is the best sound recording given to Rattle since he began working in Germany. Is that because it is a studio production, and by DG, rather than an EMI recording from Philharmonie? Probably. The Berlin Philharmonic sound quite magnificent; the introductory maestoso gigantic in its ardour, the tenderness of the central slow movement receiving the most sensitive and refined accompaniment, before waves of the most wonderful bass-rich string tone are roused later on. The finale no less successful.
The studio environment leaves nothing wanting in terms of excitement or commitment. I'm certainly no expert, but I sensed no lack of insight or depth of feeling in Zimerman's performance, and given the fact that this is really a symphony-concerto, I feel one shoudn't use the absence of a fill-up on the disc as an excuse to ignore it. After a performance such as this, nothing can follow but our own feeling of satisfaction...
Buy the CD and fill the airwaves with what Schumann called the disclosure of wondrous regions.