Of all Beethoven’s piano concertos, it was No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37 that left the strongest and most immediate impression on me as a child. The tangible tension of the dark, taut opening was electrifying, the inevitable fortissimo explosions awesome, the irresistible energy of the tutti passages exhilarating, and the sepulchral entrance of the orchestra at the end of the first movement mesmerising and chilling. Add to this the addictive nature of the finale’s almost dance-like tune, and I was totally lost under the music’s spell. In this, I later learned, I was close to 19th-century audiences, who loved this concerto above all others by Beethoven, including our present-day favourite, the Emperor.
As I came to play the concerto in my early teens, I was almost disheartened to discover that the core of the piano part in the first movement was, in fact, lyrical, and (what seemed worse) written in a major key! Of the darkness and drama that captivated me so much, the piano shared relatively little. It could be found in the initial roar of three C minor scales, followed by a fortissimo proclamation of the main theme in double octaves [ [track 1, 3:21] – what a powerful ‘I am here’ announcement after the long symphonic opening! – and the heavy-hearted buildup at the end of the development and shattering collapse into the reprise [8:50]. But perhaps, most gratifyingly, it pervaded much of the magnificently conceived cadenza [12:29], a pianistic and dramaturgical tour de force, where I felt Beethoven had finally given the instrument free rein for three minutes. The coda remains, now as then, my favourite part of the entire concerto, with the ghostly appearance of the orchestra underlined by the timpani’s distant, yet tangible menace at [15:36], and the increasingly desperate build-up towards the final and fateful C minor crash.
It was only later that I fully appreciated Beethoven’s genius in balancing those sections of high drama with numerous moments of tenderness, lyricism and even humour. The warm beauty of the second subject ([1:30] in the orchestra and [4:55] in the piano); the heartfelt entreaty at [3:39] or the artless narrative at [7:41]; the glow of the bravura passages and trills at [6:20] – all these combine to form a musical canvas much more complex and nuanced than if it had consisted of nothing but dramatic outbursts and ghostly apparitions. And ultimately, they make the moments of darkness and drama that much more impactful and memorable.
The second movement provides much-needed repose, mirroring Beethoven’s approach in his other works in a minor key. But the transition contains a shock – a leap to E major, harmonically light years away from C minor, barely linked to the first movement through the enharmonic pairing of G sharp (the upper note of the first chord of the slow movement) and A flat (the upper note of the dissonant chord at [tr. 1, 0:13 and 3:34]). In complete contrast to the preceding turmoil, Beethoven creates a spellbindingly still soundscape, presented to us in a frozen, inward-looking meditation by the piano alone. But underneath the serene surface, there’s tightly held tension, which erupts at [tr. 2, 1:01] – and even more impressively in the reprise at [6:21] – leading to a more flowing, luminously orchestrated tutti.
This contrast of serenity and energy is even embodied in the unusual notation of this movement. It is written in 3/8 – usually a metre reserved for lighter dances – and yet the tempo indication is Largo, among the slowest Beethoven used. It is clearly a slow movement, and yet the piano score looks densely inked, as the many fast passages are written in 64th, 128th and, in one eyebrow-raising instance, 256th notes. The music does not seem pressed to resolve the contradiction – it comfortably embodies both sides at once, right until the very last bars of the movement, when the softly falling notes of an E major triad in the piano and woodwinds are followed by a highly energetic final chord in the entire orchestra.
The finale’s ever-so-slightly edgy tune fleetingly connects to the slow movement through its second note – the same A flat/G sharp I mentioned above. The wonderfully catchy refrain is light and almost lyrical in the piano, but becomes muscular and punchy once the full forces of the orchestra take it up [tr. 3, 0:42] – the big dramatic gestures are again left to the orchestra.
The episodes quickly shift the key to major, and the mood becomes carefree and joyful (including some impressive finger-breaking passages at [1:35 and 6:39]). The second episode [3:35] also introduces a warm melody in the clarinet, recalling the middle movement of the First Concerto both through its key (A flat major) and the increasingly intertwined duet between the clarinet and the piano. After the third episode, a somewhat questioning tutti follows [7:24], and after a written-out piano improvisation [7:47], Beethoven closes the movement with a blazing coda [8:04], firmly resolving the concerto’s dramatic tensions with triumph and light.
The concerto was premiered on 5 April 1803 at the Theater an der Wien as part of a mammoth all-Beethoven programme which also included the premieres of the Second Symphony and the oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives, alongside a repeat of the First Symphony. The solo part was performed by Beethoven himself, who asked Ignaz von Seyfried, the theatre’s musical director, to turn pages for him. By that point, the concerto had been brewing in Beethoven’s mind for a long time – the earliest sketches go as far back as 1796. But despite the prolonged composition history, Beethoven had still not written out the piano part by the time of the premiere, leaving a somewhat agitated Seyfried to recall:
I saw almost nothing but empty pages; at the most, on one page or another a few Egyptian hieroglyphs, wholly unintelligible to me, were scribbled down to serve as clues to him; for he played nearly all of the solo part from memory … He gave me a secret glance whenever he was at the end of one of the invisible passages, and my scarcely concealable anxiety not to miss the decisive moment amused him greatly.
(Interesting to note that the expectation of playing with a score was so strong at the time that Beethoven felt he needed to put on a show of playing from one!)
It was on the same stage, some four and a half years later, that Beethoven publicly premiered his Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58, in what was to be his last appearance as a concerto soloist. That programme went on for even longer and included the premieres of the Fifth and Sixth symphonies and the Choral Fantasy, alongside the concert aria Ah! perfido, and movements from the Mass in C (!). The audience endured four hours in an unheated theatre in the dead of winter, the performance was under-rehearsed – but what a nearly-unimaginable string of premieres! (Contemporary reports do sound as if this may have been too much of a good thing, though the concerto touched them deeply.)
The Fourth Concerto is the most poetic and possibly the least extrovert of the five. While hardly lacking in pianistic brilliance – in fact, I would rank it as the most challenging of Beethoven’s concertos in terms of sheer technical difficulty – it is the poetry, subtle and breathing, suffusing every note, which seems to me to leave the biggest mark on both listeners and performers.
The very opening is a moment of pure magic. The piano starts on its own with a phrase of ineffable simplicity. It seems almost improvised on the spot, a moment of inspiration trustingly shared with us, but its construction and balance are utter perfection. The opening G major chord – at once dense, soft and luminous – organically continues with the main rhythmic motif of the movement (the same note repeated four times in a short–short–short–long pattern). The third repeat of the motif stops on a syncopated A minor chord – a touch of colour and emotion – before a light-fingered ascending passage leads to the end of the phrase – a caressing appoggiatura alighting on an invitingly open D major chord. For me, this is possibly the single most beautiful phrase Beethoven composed for the piano, which may – I hope! – excuse the over-the-top description. And the magic does not stop there: the orchestra repeats the same phrase in the relatively distant key of B major – a dream within a dream – before returning to the home key and the full opening tutti.
The first movement wonderfully balances its unhurried expansiveness with ever-present energy and, often, brilliance. Special moments abound. To point out just a few: the entrance of the piano after the opening tutti at [tr. 4, 3:03], with the main motif ascending in tritones, the harshest and most dissonant of intervals, like an antidote to the prevalent beauty of the preceding minutes; the marvellous sense of space at [4:14] with the right-hand melody effortlessly floating high above the dark left-hand-and-strings accompaniment; the memorable pairing of the piano with the lowest strings at [7:58]; the repeat of the opening phrases at [10:31] where the piano seems to imitate bells – large ones in the G major phrase and small silver ones in the B major phrase high above the orchestra; and finally, the last, dreamy, repeats of the opening motif as the piano joins the orchestra at [18:42], before the final, glorious G major build-up and close.
The second movement is one of Beethoven’s most striking narratives – a dialogue between an angular, insistent, implacable string orchestra playing in austere unison and the piano in its most personal, heartfelt and imploring. ‘Orpheus taming the wild beasts with his music’ is a common extra-musical interpretation of this movement, but we could just as easily imagine the piano as a personification of a single soul – perhaps Beethoven himself – surrounded by the forces of fate, gradually succeeding in softening their assault. The piano’s unchangeably gentle sound (it must have been even more so on Beethoven’s softer-sounding instruments), makes the eruption at [tr. 5, 3:25] that much more shocking: a cry of raw, uncontainable anguish. When it subsides, we are left with but a shadow of the strings’ original fury [4:11], leading to the piano’s last two entrances. Whether we hear them as a prayer, as the taming or the acceptance of fate, they are profoundly moving – Beethoven at his most human and vulnerable.
With the echo of the upper E still hanging in the air, Beethoven brilliantly repurposes it as the middle note of a C major chord to open the finale, creating a seamless link between these infinitely distant musical worlds. To ease the transition further, at the finale’s opening Beethoven maintains the strings-only orchestration, as well as the barely-a-whisper nature of the strings’ sound. But the immediate shift in content trumps the similarity of presentation – the refrain is alert and alive, rhythmically crisp with its chains of short–short–long note groups, its mood light and uplifting (both figuratively and literally – the little C major ascent right at [tr. 6, 0:03] is a sprinkle of joy). And as an inside joke, the refrains all start in the wrong key! It’s only at the very end of the opening phrase that the C major harmony reveals itself as the subdominant of our real home key – G major – and the G major chord makes the briefest of appearances at [0:08].
The piano returns to C major, inventively accompanied by the warmth of a solo cello. Its variation on the opening line softens the sharp rhythms with cascades of semiquavers and trills, though the syncopated left-hand chords after each long melody note add a dose of rhythmical quirkiness. As it unfolds, the finale is wonderfully witty and light-footed, though as in any mature movement by Beethoven, there is variety and contrast aplenty. Just consider the transformations of the refrain itself: the quietly crackling energy of the opening turns into the brightest and most muscular of passages at [0:28] (trumpets and drums appearing for the first time in the concerto); later in the movement, the piano plays a variation on the refrain an octave higher, in a glockenspiel-like sound [6:09]; and after the cadenza, the refrain is warmly presented by the clarinets and bassoons, with a flowing accompaniment in the piano [8:24]. Uniting all these is an infectious energy radiating from the music; for me, the finale glows with the sheer joy of living, a nearly-cloudless affirmation of life after the personal tragedy of the second movement.