Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 3 & Mass in C major

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Own two of the works that helped cement Beethoven’s reputation as a creative genius like none other. Internationally acclaimed pianist Emanuel Ax joins Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony in a dynamic performance of Beethoven’s robust Piano Concerto No. 3. Then, MTT leads the Grammy-winning SF Symphony Chorus and musicians in a rarely performed work: Beethoven’s Mass in C major.


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Ludwig van Beethoven was born December 16, 1770 (probably, since he was baptized on the 17th), in Bonn, Germany, and died March 26, 1827, in Vienna, Austria. He composed his Piano Concerto No. 3 from 1796 to 1803, and it was premiered April 5, 1803, at Vienna’s Theater an der Wien, with the composer as soloist. In addition to the solo piano, the work is scored for two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, timpani, and strings.

He composed his Mass in C major in 1807, and it was premiered September 13 of that year at the Bergkirche in Eisenstadt, Austria, with the composer conducting. It is scored for two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, timpani, organ, strings, four vocal soloists (soprano, contralto, tenor, bass), and mixed chorus.

Piano Concerto No. 3
Listeners of Beethoven’s C minor Piano Concerto may entertain recollections of an earlier C minor Piano Concerto, the brooding, even despairing one that Mozart composed in 1786. Beethoven was an admirer of the Mozart work, and his own C minor Piano Concerto, which was not completed until 1803, displays a strikingly unified vocabulary and taut structure.

The opening movement has an aggressive cast. The main theme of the concerto’s first movement is terse, blunt, to-the-point. What the strings play is answered by a mirroring woodwind phrase, proceeding into a passionate continuation for the whole orchestra in a sinking scale pattern. A second principal theme appears several pages into the piece, a gracious melody introduced by violins with the added intensity of gentle clarinets. The orchestra’s exposition goes on at ample length and with considerable force. The piano makes its entrance with an ornamental, three-measure lead-in of scales (played in octaves) before articulating the stark main theme on its own.

Beethoven develops this opening movement along the general lines of Classical concertos, but he pays specific obeisance to Mozart’s C minor Concerto near the end. Where the first movements of most Classical concertos close with a summation by the orchestra alone (perhaps with the piano doubling the orchestral music literally), Beethoven, like Mozart, provides more intricate interplay between soloist and orchestra. Following the cadenza, he launches into a coda in which the piano continues to sparkle with arpeggios and other expressive motifs—indeed, in which the orchestra plays a subservient, merely accompanying role. At the end, the piano revisits the scales-in-octaves that had marked its entrance long before, an inspired finishing touch.

The second movement begins with the piano alone, singing with quiet nobility. Beethoven supports the hushed mood of this movement with imaginative touches of orchestration, including a magical dialogue among the piano (playing sweeping, murmuring arpeggios), flute, and bassoon, against a delicate accompaniment of plucked strings. After a little cadenza, the movement dies away into a pianissimo reminiscence of music that has come before. But Beethoven will be Beethoven, and he surprises his listeners by appending one last chord, a fortissimo exclamation point.

The jaunty final movement opens with a piano solo. This movement is all fun, unrolling as a rondo, with contrasting interludes of sunny temperament. The proceedings come to a climax when, following the soloist’s brief cadenza, a triumphant coda shifts into giddy meter and the rondo theme is broken apart and reconditioned into an insouciant sort of tune that brings everything to a high-spirited conclusion. Perhaps this was intended as a final salute to Mozart’s C minor Piano Concerto, which ends in much the same way.

Mass in C major
Mention of the Esterházy Princes inevitably evokes Franz Joseph Haydn, who served in that family’s employ for nearly thirty years. Even after his full-time involvement ended in 1790, he wrote a few further pieces for the Esterházys, notably the six Masses he produced from 1796 to 1802 for the almost yearly commemoration of the deceased wife of Prince Nicholas Esterházy II (the grandson of Haydn’s principal patron), performances that took place at the Bergkirche in Eisenstadt, twenty miles south of Vienna. After Haydn gave up composing, the memorial commissions were given to other composers. In 1807, the task went to Haydn’s former pupil Ludwig van Beethoven.

Beethoven enjoyed eminence by that time. His first four symphonies, his opera Leonora (later transformed into Fidelio), and his Opus 59 string quartets were already behind him—but he seems to have been unnerved by the inevitable comparison to Haydn’s late masterpieces. Serious hearing loss was only one of the health issues that was bedeviling him just then, and as his deadline for submitting the Mass grew near, he even provided Nicholas II with a letter from his physician to excuse his tardiness due to an “illness of the head.”

When Beethoven traveled to Eisenstadt to conduct the premiere, he met with little cooperation from the choristers, many of whom failed to show up at rehearsals. The Prince promulgated a command that all the singers and instrumentalists who were expected must be on hand for the performance, which one suspects fell short of optimal all the same. The work failed to please, and the Prince spoke of it dismissively in the composer’s presence after the performance. Beethoven remained proud of it, though, later describing it as “especially close to my heart.” He had trouble getting it printed. In 1808, his publishers Breitkopf & Härtel balked at accepting the piece. They acquiesced only when Beethoven insisted they take the piece if they also wanted his Fifth and Sixth Symphonies. Even so, it did not appear until 1812—and the score pointedly carried a dedication not to Prince Esterházy, who had originally commissioned it, but rather to Beethoven’s more appreciative patron Prince Kinsky.

While respecting certain traditions of Mass composition, such as the fugal settings of the “Cum sancto spiritu” section of the Gloria and the brief “Osanna,” Beethoven invests the piece with striking originality. He employs the instrumental forces to expressive effect, and distributes the text seamlessly among solos, ensembles, and the chorus, justifying his claim to his publishers that he “treated the text in a manner in which it has rarely been treated.” To Beethoven it was a “special” work—one that caused Prince Esterházy to exclaim, “My dear Beethoven, now what have you done?”

—James M. Keller

James M. Keller is Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and the New York Philharmonic.

ON THIS ALBUM


San Francisco Symphony
Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor
Emanuel Ax, piano
Joélle Harvey, soprano
Kelley O'Connor, mezzo-soprano
William Burden, tenor
Shenyang, bass-baritone
San Francisco Symphony Chorus
     Ragnar Bohlin, chorus director

Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor

1.   Allegro con brio
2.   Largo
3.   Rondo: Allegro

Mass in C major

4.   Kyrie
5.   Gloria
6.   Credo
7.   Sanctus
8.   Agnus Dei

Total Playing Time: 1:17:04