The piano concerto genre has enjoyed unabating popularity since its beginnings in the last third of the 18th century. Written to best showcase the soloist’s virtuosity and musicality, these concentrated, often extrovert works held great appeal for listeners, something which composers did not fail to notice. The genre came to an early peak in the works of Mozart, whose 23 original concerti showed a unique richness of structural variety and melodic inspiration, coupled with brilliant piano writing. Beethoven made his first attempt in the genre as a 14-year-old, in 1784, the same year in which Mozart, in an outburst of creativity, wrote six of his mature concerti one after another. The result was his Piano Concerto in E flat major, WoO 4—a fresh and pleasant work, though perhaps closer in spirit to the gallant style of early Classicism in its goodnaturedness and risk-free harmonies.
The compositional history of Beethoven’s first two mature piano concerti is unusually tangled. It goes back to 1790, by which time the first version of the B flat major Concerto (eventually published as ‘No. 2’ years later) is known to have been completed. A second version was written out in 1793, after Beethoven’s move from his birthplace in Bonn to Vienna, his home for the rest of his life. This intermediate version concerns us, as it contained the Rondo, WoO 6 as its finale, fully orchestrated. Beethoven replaced it with a completely new movement at the next stage of revision, mostly likely in 1794. (I will return to the question of why, and to the further history of the Rondo below.)
On 29 March 1795, Beethoven gave his debut public concert in Vienna, performing a ‘completely new concerto’ (as per the review in the Wiener Zeitung from 1 April 1795). This was previously believed to be the recent, third version of the B flat major Concerto. However, certain indications by Beethoven’s friends, as well as modern-day source analysis, suggest rather that this was the first version of the indeed ‘completely new’ C major Concerto, finished less than two days before the concert’s date. Interestingly, the Concerto was performed as an intermission, sandwiched between two parts of an oratorio, and was a success, earning the ‘undivided applause of the audience’.
Beethoven continued performing the C major Concerto in the following years, in Berlin, Budapest and Prague among others. The great success the Concerto enjoyed in Prague in October 1798 inspired Beethoven to return to the earlier B flat major Concerto. He revised it on the spot, creating the fourth, final version, which he then performed in Prague a few days later.
Finally, the C major Concerto underwent another round of revision shortly before being performed at a benefit concert in Vienna on 2 April 1800. Beethoven’s original plan was to complete his third, C minor Concerto for that date; this, however, did not happen, and he used the occasion to thoroughly revise the C major Concerto, bringing it to its final form.
Both concerti found their way into print in 1801. First, the C major Concerto was printed as ‘No. 1’ by the Viennese publisher Tranquillo Mollo, then, in December that year, Franz Anton Hoffmeister published the B flat major Concerto as ‘No. 2’ in Vienna and Leipzig (which explains the later opus number). By that time Beethoven’s opinion of both concerti became somewhat disparaging. ‘Not one of my best works’, he wrote of the B flat major Concerto to another publisher, Breitkopf & Härtel, going on to say that the C major Concerto was ‘also not one of my best compositions of that type’. One might see this as Beethoven’s business acumen: downplaying the importance of those of his works which were published by other houses. But similar remarks in other letters suggest that Beethoven at that time had his sights firmly on his next concerto, that in C minor, which he intended to become the culmination of his efforts in the genre.
But let us finally look at the music itself! A piano concerto traditionally opens with a double exposition—first, a big tutti, in which the orchestra presents the themes and motifs of the movement, and then a second exposition, in which the piano first presents some new material, but then repeats and reworks the themes presented by the orchestra. This, more or less, is the path the music takes in the C major Concerto, but it is not at all what happens in the B flat major Concerto. Instead, Beethoven quite cheekily writes an all-new exposition for the piano, overflowing with as yet unheard melodies and only paying lip service to the orchestral exposition. Such abundance of melodic material also makes for an interesting development section, as Beethoven has two expositions-worth of motifs to draw upon, instead of the usual one. In fact, there is so much material that the development spills over into the reprise, which begins with what sounds like a new transition passage, but is actually a variation on the second motif of the opening tutti, which hasn’t been heard since.
All of this of course is part of the inner mechanism of the movement, perhaps not immediately noticeable by the listeners. The music itself is poised perfectly between the energetic and the elegant, as summarised already in the first eight seconds of the movement. One finds the same balance in the piano part, which is light-footed and at times ostentatiously virtuosic, but which also includes moments of exquisite beauty, particularly in the passages written in the relatively distant keys of D flat and G flat major.
The cadenza of this movement is unusual as well, in that it was written down by Beethoven many years after the final version of the concerto. It is thus closer in style to Beethoven’s late period with its characteristic interest in polyphony, as evidenced by the opening fugato. It is a large, fully-structured cadenza with a highly atmospheric ending, in which a new motif appears above a distant rumble in the left hand. The twilight-like atmosphere ends with a set of brilliant scales up and down the keyboard which bring in the orchestra—sounding sweetly innocent after the preceding turmoil—to close the movement.
Poetry and depth are the two keywords of the second movement, which is based on a tranquil, chorale-like melody suffused with spirituality. The orchestra’s role is a surprisingly tense and dramatic one, surrounding the calmer, more introspective piano episodes. Later, the piano’s sound opens up, showcasing the full singing tone for which Beethoven’s own performances were famous (a great feat, considering the much shorter tone duration and smaller dynamic range of the instruments Beethoven was playing). It is a mature, wise movement, reaching a peak of emotional complexity in its last third, where a mini cadenza, followed by a whispered exchange with the orchestra leads to another dramatic tutti, and then to the incredible magic of the piano’s last dialogue with the orchestra: half recitativo, half memory, and all heart and soul and beauty.
The finale then bursts in as a complete contrast—down-to-earth, boundlessly energetic, full of quirky accents and spiky humour (including, but not limited to a false reprise in the utterly wrong key of G major and the least expected piano outro imaginable, as a final joke). It masterfully brings us out of the magical reverie induced by the second movement’s conclusion, and rounds out the structural and narrative arch of the Concerto perfectly.
This is perhaps the place to talk about the Rondo, WoO 6. As mentioned above, it was Beethoven’s original version of this Concerto’s third movement, though rather than revising it after 1793, he chose to replace it completely with a new finale. Beethoven gave no indication as to why, but one possible reason could have been the unusual structure, which includes an unexpected Andante episode in the middle—very likely in homage to Mozart, who employed a similar device in the finale of his Concerto in E flat major, K. 482. Perhaps though, he felt that the Rondo was too jovial and gallant in spirit, and that the deeply poetic second movement required a much more energetic, irreverent and humorous finale as a counterweight.
Beethoven was unsure whether to publish or destroy the autograph of the Rondo, and in the end did neither, keeping the manuscript among his papers until his death. It was published posthumously, in 1829, with the piano part greatly expanded and elaborated by Carl Czerny, Beethoven’s former student and good acquaintance. Czerny’s version was meant to approximate the shape which the piano part might have taken had Beethoven continued working on the Rondo as he did with the other two movements. However, as this realisation of the music had not been authorised by Beethoven, it remains but an educated guess, and in a way reflects Czerny’s own style as much as Beethoven’s.
Therefore, for this recording, I decided to play Beethoven’s original version, the way it appeared in the 1793 version of the Concerto, only adding short transitions and a cadenza where indicated by Beethoven. In my opinion, the Rondo is a lovely standalone piece, fun and carefree, and it deserves to be played—though I fully agree with Beethoven’s decision to remove it from the Concerto proper.
The C major Concerto, which opens the album, is even sunnier than the B flat major Concerto; more expansive, more richly orchestrated (Beethoven adds clarinets, trumpets and timpani), and is also perhaps more settled. Not in its tempo or energy levels—which, if anything, surpass those of the earlier work—but in the addition of a sense of space and grandeur, with which the B flat major Concerto did not really concern itself.
In terms of motivic work, the first movement is a wonder of economy. The short opening motif—a long note, followed by three repeated short notes an octave higher—is reworked in all possible ways, both in the orchestra and in the piano. This culminates in a highly imaginative exchange between the horns and the piano at the end of the development section, where the music is reduced to its barest minimum: repeated pulsation with a hint of harmony.
The piano part is richly characterised, right from its first entrance, when within the first few lines the music passes through several different moods, as if to make up for the piano’s silence during the long opening tutti. The virtuosity, though definitely present throughout, is more relaxed and contains a good dose of humour. And lyricism abounds, from the second subject (this time ‘correctly’ repeated from the orchestral tutti), through the mostly soft-spoken development, and especially in the magical sections towards the end of the exposition and reprise, where time seems to stand still and the piano, at its most tender, feels its way through a series of colourful modulations. It may sound far-fetched, but to my ears there is a first hint here of a similar wildly modulating passage in another C major movement, which Beethoven would write some 27 years later: the second movement of his Sonata No. 32, Op. 111.
As for the cadenza, Beethoven gives us two complete alternatives, as well as the incomplete fragment of a third. Of the two, the choice is between a compact and harmonious one, or an extravagantly wild and obstreperous one, which is probably the nearest we have to a written out improvisation by Beethoven (and what an improviser he was, according to all contemporary reports!). Though eye-opening and hair-raising to play at home or even at a concert, I find that at its five minutes of length, it can completely overpower the movement itself, and so have opted for the shorter cadenza for this recording.
The second movement is once again full of poetry and beauty, though this time its core is lyricism rather than spirituality; a personal, intimate outpouring of emotions both tender and ardent. Beethoven puts the clarinet, with its warm and lyrical tone, almost on an equal footing with the piano (something which Mozart took great care not to do, with any instrument). Though at first the two are separate, with the clarinet ‘operating’ only in the orchestral sections, they become more and more intertwined as the movement progresses, finally playing a duet after a prolonged coda, which, in my opinion, is among the most beautiful passages that Beethoven has ever written.
The finale—witty, driven, full of invention and humour—is sheer fun to perform. There’s not much to note, apart from the very catchy middle section in a minor key, and the coda in which the piano insists on accenting all the wrong beats, and which (alas!) happens to be fiendishly uncomfortable in its piano writing. As if to compensate, Beethoven grants us a beautiful slow cadenza, preceded by distant, dreamy repetitions of the main motif. The oboe echoes the slow phrase, before the orchestra, in full swing, brings the Concerto to a close.