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8.550122 - BEETHOVEN, L. van: Piano Concertos Nos. 3 and 4 (Vladar, Capella Istropolitana, Wordsworth)

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 - 1827)

Piano Concerto No.3 in C Minor, Opus 37
Piano Concerto No.4 in G Major, Opus 58


In the last month of 1792 Beethoven arrived in Vienna, the city in which Mozart had died in straitened circumstances the year before. He came with introductions to important patrons and with the support of his employer, the Archbishop of Cologne, a son of the old Empress Maria Theresa, having already won considerable praise in Sonn as a pianist. In 1787 Beethoven had come to Vienna for lessons with Mozart, but had had to return home on news of his mother's fatal illness. Now he took lessons from Haydn, from the Court Composer Salieri and from Albrechtsberger, who was to become Kapellmeister at St. Stephen's Cathedral.

Beethoven enjoyed great success in these early years in Vienna, welcomed by society, always in search of some novelty. In the closing years of the century, however, he experienced the first signs of approaching deafness, the disability that was to isolate him from other men and drive him more exclusively to composition, as his performance became less and less tolerable.

Between the years 1794 and 1809 Beethoven w rote seven concertos, five of them for his own principal instrument, the pianoforte, one for violin and one for a solo group of violin, cello and piano. The third concerto for piano, in C minor, was written in 1800, the period of composition of the first symphony and the first set of string quartets. The fourth piano concerto, written in part while the composer was at work on his opera Fidelio, was completed in 1806, by which time three more symphonies had been composed, as well as the Razumovsky Quartets.

The C minor Piano Concerto, which recalls in key and conception, as well as in its opening theme, the great C minor concerto of Mozart, was first performed in Vienna by Beethoven in one of those impossibly long programmes which he seemed to favour. In this case the oratorio Christus am Oelberg (Christ on the Mount of Olives) was given, with the first two symphonies, rehearsed by an increasingly disgruntled orchestra from eight o'clock in the morning, until the composer's patron, Prince Karl Lichnowsky, called for a break and provided picnic refreshments. Beethoven's pupil Ferdinand Ries left an account of this first performance of the concerto, in 1803, and of his own appearance as soloist in the concerto later in the same year, under Beethoven's nominal direction. It was for Ries that the solo piano part was first committed to paper.

The imposing first movement, with its impressively strong first theme and contrasting subject of calm intensity are announced first by the orchestra, before the entry of the soloist with aversion of the two themes on which the movement is built. The slow movement has one of those themes of protracted beauty of which Beethoven was a master. The E major theme is introduced first by the soloist, who opens the final rondo with a principal melody of bold outline. The movement is broadly conceived and contains striking moments of contrapuntal invention and a rapid closing section that transforms the two main themes.

There were more extreme misjudgements of planning in the concert in 1808 at which the Piano Concerto in G was first played. The Burgtheater had been engaged for an important charity concert on the same evening, so that Beethoven made use once more of the suburban Theater-an-der-Wien, that had opened in 1801 under the management of Emanuel Schikaneder, author of The Magic Flute. Here the audience was obliged to sit in a bitterly cold auditorium - the month was December from half-past six until half-past ten, and that at a time in the history of music when the patience of audiences had not yet been tried by the Gargantuan works of later nineteenth century symphonists. The programme included the Pastoral Symphony, an Italian scena, shivered through by a cold soprano, the Gloria from the Mass in C, the new piano concerto, the Fifth Symphony (described by a member of the audience as very elaborate and oo long), the Sanctus from the Mass, a Fantasy for solo piano and the Choral Fantasia. The last item, as under-rehearsed as much of the rest of the programme, brought catastrophic confusion.

Johann Friedrich Reichardt, former Kapellmeister to Frederick the Great, whose opinion of the Fifth Symphony has already been quoted, described the piano concerto as terribly difficult, but allowed that Beethoven played astonishingly well, in the fastest possible tempi, praising in particular the singing tone that the composer elicited from the piano in the slow movement.

The concerto opens, contrary to the general practice of the time, with a brief statement of part of the first subject by the soloist. The orchestral exposition follows, after which the soloist is heard again, in a more elaborate role, which is maintained in a movement of imposing conception.

The relatively short E minor slow movement, in which Liszt imagined Orpheus taming the Furies by his music, has all that deep serenity that Beethoven knew so well how to conjure. A brief introduction by the strings leads to the entry of the soloist, a pattern that is then repeated. The movement is scored only for piano and strings.

The second movement is linked to the third by a brief passage of singular poignancy, allowing the discreet entry of the orchestra in the final rondo, quickly dispelling the previous mood with a principal theme of cunning harmonic originality. There are episodes of a more serious cast to come in a movement in which traditional optimism finally prevails.

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