LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN
BORN: Beethoven’s baptismal certificate is dated December 17, 1770. Bonn, then an independent electorate
DIED: March 26, 1827. Vienna, Austria
COMPOSED: Begun in 1805, completed early the next year. Hélène Grimaud plays the cadenzas by Beethoven
WORLD PREMIERE: December 22, 1808, as part of the famous Akademie in the Theater an der Wien, in which the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies and the Choral Fantasy also had their premieres. It was Beethoven’s last appearance as a concerto soloist
US PREMIERE: February 4, 1854. Robert Heller was soloist, with Carl Bergmann and the Germania Musical Society, at the Boston Odeon
SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—January 1927. Ernö Dohnányi was soloist, Alfred Hertz conducted. MOST RECENT—February 2017. Yefim Bronfman was soloist, Herbert Blomstedt conducted
INSTRUMENTATION: Flute, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings
DURATION: About 34 mins
THE BACKSTORY Concerto is a form of theater. Beethoven, an experienced and commanding pianist, had a keen feeling for that, and his first three mature piano concertos and his Violin Concerto, all of which had been heard in Vienna by the spring of 1807, make something striking of the first solo entrance. The older Beethoven grew, the more imaginative he became. In the Triple Concerto, a beautiful, problematic work that was completed a couple of years before the Fourth Piano Concerto, the cello enters with the first theme, but a breath later than you expect and with a magical transformation of character. In the Violin Concerto, the solo arises spaciously from the receding orchestra; after that comes the Emperor Concerto, where right at the beginning three plain chords provoke three grand fountains of broken chords, trills, and scales. But it is here, in this most gently spoken and poetic of all his concertos, that Beethoven offers his most radical—to begin with the piano alone. It is a move without precedent. What is also remarkable is how rarely Beethoven has been copied in this stroke.
THE MUSIC What the piano says is as remarkable as its saying anything at all at this point. The writer Donald Tovey recalled a colleague “happening to glance at a score of the Missa solemnis, open at its first page, putting his finger upon the first chord and saying, ‘Isn't it extraordinary how you can recognize any single common chord scored by Beethoven?’ ” The orchestra’s opening chord in the Emperor is an example, and so is the soft, densely voiced, dolce chord with which the piano begins the Concerto in G major. The whole brief phrase is arresting in its subtle rhythmic imbalance, but the still greater wonder is the orchestra’s hushed, sensitive and far‑seeing, harmonically remote response. The persistent three‑note upbeat makes this music tender cousin to the Fifth Symphony (in progress at the same time though completed only two years later). The rhythmic elasticity of the first solo‑and‑orchestra statement‑and-response foreshadows an uncommon range of pace.
The second movement, accompanied by strings only, has become the concerto’s most famous. Its comparison to Orpheus taming the wild beasts with his music was for years attributed to Liszt, though we have since learned that Adolph Bernard Marx first floated the idea in his Beethoven biography of 1859. Even earlier than that Beethoven’s pupil Carl Czerny had suggested that “in this movement (which, like the entire concerto, belongs to the finest and most poetical of Beethoven’s creations) one cannot help thinking of an antique dramatic and tragic scene, and the player must feel with what movingly lamenting expression his solo must be played in order to contrast with the powerful and austere orchestral passages.”
In this second movement, the orchestra is loud, staccato, in stark octaves. The piano is soft, flowing, songful, richly harmonized. At the end, after a truly Orphic cadenza—and Beethoven almost persuades us that he invented the trill expressly for this moment—the orchestra has learned the piano’s way. Only the cellos and basses remember their opening music, but just briefly, and their mutterings are whispered pianissimo.
Until the conclusion of this sublime movement, this is Beethoven’s most quietly scored piano concerto. In the finale, which takes a charmingly Haydnesque, oblique approach to the question of how to resume the work after the evocative scene just played, trumpets and drums appear for the first time. Not that this movement is in any way grand; rather, it is lyrical and witty. It is also, with its two sections of violas, given to outrageously lush sounds—one more surprise in this most subtle, suggestive, and multi‑faceted of Beethoven’s concertos. —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 in 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.
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