About this Recording
8.571253 - BEETHOVEN, L. van: Piano Concertos, Vol. 1 (Biret) - Nos. 1, 2 (Biret Beethoven Edition, Vol. 3)

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)
Piano Concertos, Volume 1
No. 1 in C major, Op. 15 • No. 2 in B flat major, Op. 19


According to Thayer, ‘In the Malherbe Collection in the Library of the Paris Conservatory there is a manuscript which contains…a fragment of the first movement of the B flat Piano Concerto in score…in an obviously early form, from the development section of the first movement…Beethoven played a new concerto, the key of which is not indicated. It is most likely that it was this one in B flat, since the one in C did not exist at the time…According to Tomaschek’s account he played the B flat Concerto—expressly distinguished from that in C—in 1798, again in Prague…The revision of the first movement was radical, and the entire work was apparently undertaken in view of an imminent performance…It was published by Hoffmeister and Kuhnel and dedicated to “Carl Nikl Edlen von Nikelsberg”. Czech-born Johann Wenzel Tomaschek, who had heard all the virtuoso keyboard players from Mozart’s time regarded Beethoven as ‘the lord of and giant among pianoforte players’.

Beethoven’s work appeared in print on the frontispiece of the score as Concerto in B flat major, having first been penned to manuscript in 1794. We have Beethoven’s personal testimony backed up by sketches, that the Concerto in C major was written later but first sketched out in 1797. A sketch for the first movement cadenza of the B flat Concerto was already completed by the time he started on another cadenza for the companion C major work, and that finally arrived after preparatory work on his Sonata in D, Op. 10, No. 3. The C major Concerto’s opening movement features alternate cadenzas which, unlike the B flat Concerto, call for the extended compass of the piano. Frank Loesser in his invaluable tome Men, Women and Pianos, verifies that late on in the eighteenth century, its five octaves spanned F to F3. In Beethoven’s case, his first cadenza extended to A flat3, the second to A3 and the third to C4. The work, published by Mollo, Vienna, was dedicated to Princess Odescalchi, and became No. 1.

In 1801 Beethoven wrote to Breitkopf and Härtel concerning a number of works due to appear at both Hoffmeister and Mollo. He described the B flat as ‘one of my first concertos, and therefore not one of the best of my compositions’, and the other in C ‘…which was written later, but which also does not rank among the best of my works in this form’. He added, almost in the nature of a guarded afterthought: ‘This is only a hint for your Musikalische Zeitung with regard to criticism of these works, although if one might hear them, that is, well played, one would be best able to judge them…’

Further compositions by Beethoven during the years 1800–1 show how productive he had become, and just how much publishers would value his services in the future as he began to establish his name and reputation on a much larger scale. The list of works together with their applicable publications were beginning to be quite formidable.

Carl Czerny, was to study with Beethoven. From him we have the Abbé Gellinek’s impressions of the young composer’s playing: ‘I shall think back on last night many a time. That young fellow was full of the very devil! Never have I heard of such playing. He improvised on a theme I had given him as I never have heard Mozart himself improvise. Then he played compositions of his own which are in the highest degree astonishing and grandioso, and he displayed difficulties and effects on the piano beyond anything of which we might have dreamed.’ Prince Lichnowsky had fetched him from Germany to study with Haydn, Albrectsberger and Salieri. ‘His name is Beethoven’.

Something akin to this vivid impression belongs alongside the Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major. The Mozartean style orchestral introduction with modulations lasts some 105 bars, growing proportionately into music not only exciting to listen to but of immense stature and grandeur. The pianist’s entry is simple and highly effective, the main theme embroidered then turned on its head with rippling semiquavers sending it in various directions. The key change at 140 restarts in G major, with just flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon as guidelines, with the composer’s customary sforzandi, grace notes and pizzicati adding zest. A further lead in to E flat major features some lovely arpeggio legato phrasing by the soloist. Chords on the octave and more soft passagework linked to a sequence of mysterious descending phrases draw us back to the tonic, the soloist marking the occasion with a loud declamation. Beethoven deliberately uses sharps and flats during the recapitulation to deviate and tighten the notation leading up to the cadenza. Following it, the orchestra brings the movement to a close. The glorious Largomovement in A flat major has turning phrases on the piano, with a counter reply from the orchestra. As the soloist becomes more romantically inclined, instrumental sections decide to join in. We resume in E flat major before eventually returning to the tonic, now underlined by ascending notes in the bass and a variety of trills from the pianist’s right hand. The movement ends with a sequence of statement and reply motifs. The Rondo finale in 2/4 evokes strong elements of playful trickery—the brash Viennese Dance subject full of sforzandi. The music alternates between C, a second subject in G, and a rapidly changing sequence that leads into major-minor excursions, then back to the main subject. An A minor middle section—ben marcato e sempre staccato—revs up the proceedings, eventually returning via the rising key link to source. The coda is sheer magic: a mini piano cadenza, a plaintive oboe solo and a full orchestral tutti.

Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major is much gentler in a suggestive mode that focuses on a succession of key sequences during the orchestral introduction. Solo piano takes up the thread persuading things to go in the reverse direction, then righting itself. Far from being a poor sister relation, it leads the orchestra in newer, more involved directions. Keys keep on changing, then switching into newly discovered nooks and crannies, with a reply-answer situation that defies logic. Eventually we drop on to F, poised for the return to the tonic. Beethoven teases us with G flat during the reprise but we are left with no further surprises until the cadenza, which is specially written out as a compression of main themes, couched with boldness and sheer aplomb. The Adagio movement has real tenderness, solo piano linked to the tail-end of the exposition. Pianist and orchestra alter and develop ideas almost at will, passing variants of the theme to and fro, but we form the impression of a decorative setting of Mozart’s period with lovers taking part. The repeated pleading motifs involving both parties at the close has wonderful charm and grace. The jocular Rondo finale, so memorable as interpreted by Schnabel and Kempff is full of good humour, with a strong, stern second subject linked to the first subject appearing almost immediately, and followed by an answering motif. The pianist is kept on the move with no excuses for relaxation. A leaping-skipping rhythmic counter melody joins the fray, linked to a succession of dotted notes which give that real sense of cajolery to the whole movement. The closing pages are tremendous: a vigorous assent of thirds in the left hand and note spinning trills in the right—simple chords imitated by the winds, and a furious tutti to conclude.

On the wall at the top of my staircase is a sepia sketch of Beethoven, his body hunched over the piano, eyes tight shut concentrating on playing one of his compositions. The hands show the fingers splayed probably performing the closing chords to mark the end of the piece. The artist is probably unknown, his signature difficult to read. But I still treasure it.

Bill Newman

Close the window