BEETHOVEN:  Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major, Opus 19

Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major for Piano and Orchestra, Opus 19

Ludwig van Beethoven was born in Bonn, then an independent electorate, probably on December 16, 1770 (his baptismal certificate is dated the 17th), and he died in Vienna on March 26, 1827. What Geoffrey Block has called “the arduous odyssey” of the Piano Concerto No. 2 began in 1790. Beethoven may have played it in Vienna on March 29 or December 18, 1795 (or possibly on both occasions), the latter being a concert conducted by Haydn; he certainly played it in Prague, in rather different form, in 1798. After a few more fairly slight revisions, the work attained its final form in 1801. The first US performance was given on January 21, 1865 at a concert of the Brooklyn Philharmonic, Theodor Eisfeld conducting. The soloist was J.N. Pattison. The first San Francisco Symphony performance was given on April 12, 1949, by Claudio Arrau with Pierre Monteux conducting. In the most recent performances, in May 2010, David Fray was soloist, with Christoph Eschenbach conducting. The orchestra consists of flute, two oboes, two bassoons, two horns, and strings. Kirill Gerstein plays Beethoven’s cadenzas. Performance time: about twenty-nine minutes.

To the distress of the tidy, Beethoven’s Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major is an earlier work than his Concerto No. 1 in C major. Both are preceded by a faceless and competent work in E-flat, written in Bonn in 1784, surviving only in piano score, but with enough orchestral cues to make a reasonable reconstruction possible. Beethoven probably forgot about that E-flat Concerto, even though in his early years in Vienna, when new scores from him were much in demand, he occasionally dipped into the stack of music he had brought with him from Bonn (actually the B-flat Concerto is an example of that practice). He did not number the B-flat and C major concertos, and he certainly intended no deception. At that time, opus numbers usually reflected dates of publication, not composition—March 1801 for the Concerto in C, December 1801 for the one in B-flat—and the C major work was selected to be Beethoven’s first concerto to go into print because it was the more ambitious, brilliant, and impressive of the two.

The genesis of the Concerto No. 2 is not completely established—one study of the problem, an article by Geoffrey Block in the Elliot Forbes Festschrift (Cambridge, 1984), is titled “Some Gray Areas in the Evolution of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto in B-flat Major, Opus 19”—but it does seem clear that the origins of the work antedate Beethoven’s move to Vienna, where he arrived shortly before he turned twenty-two. From what can be inferred from sketches and other traces of the pre-1801 versions, one also gets the idea that Beethoven was troubled by how far-reaching his revisions should be, that at times he felt caught between the desire to make improvements on the basis of his rapidly growing experience and skill and some unease at the thought of moving too far from his original concept. We know that he was not entirely convinced by the outcome, and he let the publisher, Hoffmeister of Leipzig, have it for half price, at any rate for only half the price he asked for the Septet and the Symphony No. 1, because “as I have already written, I don’t consider it one of my best works.”

Modest it may be both in dimensions and demeanor when we compare it to the expansive and original Concerto in C, but the B-flat Concerto is a delight nonetheless. Of charm and good humor there is plenty, and such details as the pianissimo sneak into distant D-flat when Beethoven has just deposited us so ostentatiously on the doorstep of F major must have served notice to the alert Viennese that the slender young man with the coal-black thatch and the rough complexion had some distinctly original things to say. The much later cadenza is hugely irruptive, forward-looking even for its presumed date of 1809, and wonderful: Certainly Beethoven was on this occasion utterly free of scruples when it came to mixing vintages. The slow movement offers us a glimpse of Beethoven the great adagio player, and one can imagine the effect he must have made with that first eloquent and surprising solo entrance as well as with the hushed exit, declaimed quietly but con gran espressione and bathed in a delicately mysterious wash of pedal. The bouncy finale is a captivating, high-spirited comedy. The rhythmic double-dealing in the very first phrase is well taken, and Beethoven nicely exploits the comic potential of that ambiguity concerning where the accent falls.

Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s program annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death July 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.

More About the Music
Recordings: Murray Perahia with Bernard Haitink and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (Sony Classics)  |  Martha Argerich with Claudio Abbado and the Gustav Mahler Chamber Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon)  |  Rudolf Serkin with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic (CBS Masterworks)  |  Stephen Kovacevich with Colin Davis conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra (Philips Duo)  |  Yefim Bronfman with David Zinman conducting the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra (Arte Nova)

Reading: Beethoven, by Maynard Solomon (Schirmer)  |  Beethoven, by William Kinderman (University of California Press)  |  Beethoven: The Music and the Life, by Lewis Lockwood (Norton)  |  Thayer’s Life of Beethoven, in its most recent revision by Elliott Forbes (Princeton University Press)  |  The Beethoven Compendium, edited by Barry Cooper (Thames and Hudson)  |  Beethoven and his World: A Biographical Dictionary, by Peter Clive (Oxford University Press)

DVD: Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony explore the composer and his world in Beethoven and the Eroica, part of our Keeping Score series (SFS Media, and keepingscore.org).

(June 2014)