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8.550121 - BEETHOVEN, L. van: Piano Concertos Nos. 2 and 5 (Vladar, Capella Istropolitana, Wordsworth)
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 - 1827)
Piano Concerto No.2 in B Flat Major,
Ludwig van Beethoven made an early reputation for himself as a keyboard player. At home he had had irregular and forcible instruction through his inadequate father, only son of the old Court Kapellmeister to the Archbishop of Cologne and a singer under the same patron. The boy, who showed signs of neglect in other ways and who certainly failed to distinguish himself at school, had obvious musical talent, and this was ultimately to be fostered by lessons with the then court organist in Bonn, Christian Gottlob Neefe, whose deputy he became. In 1787 Beethoven set out for Vienna, with the support of the Archbishop, a younger son of the Empress, a young nobleman who had been prevented from an intended military career by a certain weakness in the knees that proved no barrier to ecclesiastical promotion. Beethoven had hoped to study with Mozart, but the illness of his mother led to his immediate return, his aim apparently unaccomplished.
By 1791, the year of Mozart's death, Beethoven had already shown considerable proficiency as a performer on the newly developing pianoforte, a fact of which there is independent evidence in an account of a visit to Mergentheim undertaken by the Bonn court musicians. Beethoven was able to hear the playing of the Abbe Sterkel, a performance of unusual delicacy that immediately influenced his own style, and was given a chance to demonstrate his own virtuosity and his amazing powers of improvisation. By the end of the following year he was once again in Vienna, seeking lessons from Haydn, to be followed by instruction from the Court Composer Salieri and from AIbrechtsberger.
Beethoven arrived in the imperial capital with useful introductions to a number of leading families. In particular Count Waldstein, a nobleman eight years his senior and a friend of the Archbishop, proved immensely helpful, both in instigating the journey and in providing immediate access to a circle of connoisseurs in Vienna. It was not long before Beethoven established himself as a performer of remarkable imagination and skill, a reputation that was to fade with the onset of deafness at the turn of the century, and a consequent abandonment of public performance and partial isolation from society.
At the age of fourteen Beethoven had attempted his first piano concerto, a work that now survives only in a piano score. The concerto that was to be known as his second piano concerto was probably started in Bonn and was to be re-written to emerge in published form in 1801, after what seems to have been the first performance of the concerto in 1795, followed by further revision.
The B Flat Piano Concerto is scored for a relatively modest orchestra of flute, pairs of oboes, bassoons and horns and strings. In its general characteristics the work shows clearly enough Beethoven's debt to Mozart, although there are obvious signs of his own very idiosyncratic style, as the work unfolds. The opening Allegro con brio allows the full orchestra to summon our attention with a figure that the strings then answer more suavely, as the first subject unfolds, leading to a subtle and unexpected shift of key in continuation of the orchestral exposition. The soloist enters with material of his own and leads the way to a second subject. The material is dramatically developed in a central section and subtly varied in a final recapitulation.
The orchestra starts the slow movement with music well designed to show off the soloist's ability in eliciting a singing tone from the piano, an achievement for which Beethoven was well known, and offers further opportunity for delicate display as the movement continues. This is followed by a final Rondo, into which the soloist launches with happy energy, before the orchestra takes its turn. Contrasting episodes provide the necessary element of dramatic contrast in a movement that ends with the kind of dynamic surprise that was to be repeated on other occasions, a whisper of sound followed immediately by a brief and emphatic conclusion.
The last of Beethoven's five piano concertos, popularly but mistakenly known as the Emperor Concerto, at least had imperial connections, and something about it that was both innovative and martial, a sign of the times. In May, 1809, Vienna was once again under attack from the forces of Napoleon. Haydn, now some years in retirement in the city, was to die at the end of the month, while most of the leading families, including the imperial family, had taken refuge elsewhere. In October there came what Beethoven was to describe as a "dead peace", but the year was altogether an unsettled one. During the French bombardment Beethoven had sheltered in the cellar of his unreliable brother Carl Caspar, covering his head with a pillow against the noise of the cannons, On 12th May, however, the city surrendered, the French occupation bringing with it hardship to householders, from whom a levy was exacted, coupled with a continued shortage of money and food.
It was in these circumstances that Beethoven, now 39 and increasingly deaf, worked on his new piano concerto, while spending part of the summer collecting material from various text-books for the instruction of his royal patron Archduke Rudolph. The work was probably completed in the following year and was given its first performance in Leipzig on 28th November, 1811, when the soloist was the Dessau pianist and organ virtuoso Friedrich Schneider. The concerto was later to be played in Vienna by Carl Czerny.
The Concerto in E Flat Major, Opus 73, dedicated to Archduke Rudolph, has been described by Alfred Einstein as "the apotheosis of the military concept" in the music of Beethoven, a reference to popular expectations at the time. The martial element in the work suggests comparison with the >Eroica Symphony of 1803, a work that Beethoven conducted at a charity concert during the French occupation of Vienna in 1809.
The concerto opens with an impressively triumphant piano cadenza, an indication of the scale of what is to come. This is followed by the orchestral announcement of the principal theme, one of the expectedly strong character, to be miraculously extended by the soloist in a movement of imperial proportions.
The slow movement, in B Major, an unexpected key that has already been suggested indirectly in the first movement, is introduced by the strings, with a theme of characteristic beauty that is only later to re-appear in a version by the soloist. It is the latter who hints at what is to come, before launching into the final rondo, music of characteristic ebullience and necessary contrast, providing a brilliant conclusion of sufficient proportion to sustain what has gone before.
Stefan Vladar's subsequent career has brought him a busy schedule of engagements, with performances throughout Europe and appearances in China, Thailand, Japan and Korea, as well as in the United States of America.
In 1987 while retaining his connection with both Royal Ballet Companies as guest conductor, Barry Wordsworth also worked with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, the Royal Philharmonic, the Philharmonia, the Ulster Orchestra, the BBC Concert and the London Philharmonic Orchestras. He also continued to work with New Sadlers Wells Opera, with whom he has recently recorded excerpts from Kalman's Countess Maritza and Lehar's The Count of Luxembourg and The Merry Widow. He has also recorded for the Naxos label (Smetana: Moldau & The Bartered Bride/Dvorak: Slavonic Dances) and for the Marco Polo label (Bax: Sinfonietta; Overture, Elegy & Rondo).
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