About this Recording
8.571257 - BEETHOVEN, L. van: Piano Concertos, Vol. 2 (Biret) - Nos. 3, 4 (Biret Beethoven Edition, Vol. 7)

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)
Piano Concertos, Volume 2
No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37
No. 4 in G major, Op. 56


Thayer tells us that ‘throughout this period in Beethoven’s life, each summer is distinguished by some noble composition, completed, or nearly so, so that on his return to the city it was ready for revision and his copyist. Free from the demands of society, his time was his own; his fancy was quickened, his inspiration strengthened, in field and forest labour was a delight. The most important work of the master bears in his own hand the date, 1800, and may reasonably be supposed to have been the labour of this summer.’ It is the Concerto in C minor for Pianoforte and Orchestra, Op. 37.

Beethoven first returned to his Viennese quarters in the Tiefen Graben, and eager to form new associations with publishers like Hoffmeister and Kuhnel, who since 1814 had changed their name to C.F.Peters. During 1800 other music written by the composer included Six Easy Variations for the Pianoforte, WoO 77, a Sonata for Pianoforte and French Horn, Op. 17, remembered particularly in the 1940s for the wonderful performance by Dennis Brain and Denis Matthews, and the Rondo for Pianoforte, Op. 51, No. 2. Beethoven in 1802 suddenly found himself hard of hearing, and on the advice of a Doctor Schmidt he removed himself to Heiligenstadt, divided from Dobling by a ridge consisting of higher ground and a deep gorge. His rooms were situated in a peasant house on the plain between the two, suitably remote, beyond the road to Nussdorf with an unbroken view of the Danube and the Marchfeld towards the Carpathian mountains. For a short time a little later he was at Petersplatz in the corner by the Guard-house on the fourth floor. A walk took him to the recuperative baths of Heiligenstadt, or in the opposite direction to the valley where, much latter he wrote his Pastoral Symphony. Meanwhile, the society he so enjoyed had to give way, on his doctor’s suggestion, to a more peaceful existence although his secret had generally become known and accepted but was not spoken of unless he was willing to disclose his malady. A return to the city broke his resolve; his close friend Ries writing on his deafness: ‘The beginning of his hard hearing was a matter upon which he was so sensitive that one had to be careful not to make him feel his deficiency by loud speech. When he failed to understand a thing he generally attributed it to his absent mindedness, to which, indeed, he was subject in a great degree…. When occasionally he seemed to be merry, it was generally to the extreme of boisterousness, but this happened seldom.’

Many of us know the Heiligenstadt Testament and Beethoven’s text that begins “Oh you men who think or say that I am malevolent, stubborn or misanthropic, how greatly do you wrong me…’ and just before the end: ‘I speak from experience; this was what upheld me in time of misery. Thanks to it and to my art I did not end my life by suicide—Farewell and love each other…’ At the close, he thanks all his friends; signs and seals his name—Ludwig van Beethoven, Heiligenstadt, 10 October 1802. Thus I bid you farewell—and indeed sadly—yes, that fond hope—which I brought here with me, to be cured to a degree at least, this I must now wholly abandon…’ and reminisces about the autumn leaves, high courage, the providence of pure joy echoing in my heart, and when shall I feel it again… .By November, he was writing to Breitkopf and Härtel about ‘only the most important things’ and controversially in an article for the Wiener Zeitung concerning his choice of correct publisher for his Quintet in C!

It was announced on 26 and 30 March that on 5 April 1803 ‘Herr Ludvig van Beethoven will produce a new oratorio set to music in the R.I. privil. Theater-an-der-Wien. The other pieces to be performed will be announced on the large bill-board.’ They were the First and Second Symphonies, the Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor and the oratorio Christus am Ölberg (Christ on the Mount of Olives). In the concerto Ries played, and Beethoven ‘accompanied quite beautifully’, telling Ries to write a cadenza for himself to play, and which he would correct. Ries’s very brilliant and difficult passages were judged too adventurous—would he please write another?…In the event the harder one was played after the composer had sat down, but he was delighted, shouting “Bravo!’ loudly. The feeling of stealth, in Beethoven’s favourite C minor key marks the start of the pianissimo orchestral exposition ending on four loud chords. Key changes are frequent, the music developing at speed to a lovely lyrical counter theme in winds with brass/strings commentating. We unwind in reverse for the solo piano entry—three upward scales capped by fierce octaves. Sly interplay between both parties brings new ideas, fresh modulations and the counter theme (in decoration) returns. Staying in the major key, the pianist ‘plays’ with major-minor modes and E major becomes D—then G, and reverts back to the tonic (C minor interacting with E major) choosing C major-C minor to introduce the cadenza—a tour de force of immense bravura. The dramatic coda follows on. The Largo, starting in E major for solo piano has a sustained grace and poignancy that effectively compares with the opening of the Fourth Concerto’s brighter start. Listen carefully to solo wind motifs against the pianist’s arpeggio accompaniment. The whole movement reflects both the saddened and bountiful side of Beethoven’s nature in adverse circumstances. C minor sets up the Rondo finale’s brief ‘departure episodes’ in a series of mini-cadenzas and brilliant figurations for the pianist. Divided octaves are his spontaneous gesture to the orchestra’s pointed replies during which the composer varies and contrasts a tapestry of colourful rhythmic changes that bring dignity and diversity into the equation. In the end, no one comes out on top and a truce is effected.

The Concerto No. 4 in G major, a work of great originality was begun in 1805, the same year that Beethoven’s Fidelio was revised. It was supposedly offered to Hoffmeister and Kuhnel by Beethoven’s brother Carl at the all-inclusive price of 600 florins together with Christus am Ölberg in a package that also included a piano arrangement of the overture to his ‘new opera’. Now, some doubts exist whether this took place as the lack of a publisher had delayed matters. The eventual year of publication was 1808 and the recipients the Kunst- und Industrie-Comptoir. The dedicatee was His Highness Archduke Rudolph of Austria—he had become fond of Beethoven’s compositions and resented being passed over in favour of someone else. The solo piano opening, despite its brevity, probably stands on its own through perfection of form and content. Touch, discrete rubato phrasing, a rise and fall that compensates for the question-answer motif that demands an equally poetic orchestral reply. Myra Hess would take over three hours to rehearse its timeless element and meaningful message with students. Wilhelm Backhaus played it to the manner born while Karl Böhm bridged the gap—both maintained the same identical approach throughout the movement.

The individual interpreter of the complete work ‘can only hope to don it with grace, and wear it with pride. More would be presumptuous; less would be unworthy,’ states the late Music Editor of Saturday Review, Irving Kolodin. The orchestral exposition calmly spreads itself over G-D major, then A, D, F sharp and E, F sharp ,G, A major an octave above with the intention of surveying the cloud nine formation above solo piano. Thereafter, the pianist’s turns of phrase become more involved, endeavouring to induce more complexity into the quavers and semiquavers and arouse the orchestra into a state of challenge. But this happens only in tutti interlinking sections; otherwise the smallish orchestra made up from flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, two French horns, strings remains a bolstering agent, adequately adept at propping up the solo line and highlighting the action at specified points. The rôles are intentionally reversed in the Andante con moto central movement where forte, sempre staccato strings act as the aggressor, while the pianist remains the muted onlooker, that is until roughly two thirds stage at fi g.38 where the string section has no option but to follow suit by changing to sempre diminuendo-pianissimo and allow the pianist to soar aloft in a memorable C major trill progression with quiet arco strings at the close. The Rondo Vivace Finale is a delight to behold as well as to perform. The composer is really very sparing in his markings with dolce and fortissimo almost at a premium, while the familiar sforzandi retained at the start of string phraselines or during rising passages to bolster infectious rhythmic figurations give that extra impulse to musical movement. The ending is joyous in the extreme, worthy in the main for pianists who have surpassed even their highest standards.

Bill Newman

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