Boris Giltburg

Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos. 5 & 0

So little connects the two concertos on this album, besides their common key of E flat major, that it seems almost incongruous that both were composed by the same person, albeit at two very different stages in life: Beethoven, aged 13 and 38. On the one hand we have the ‘Emperor’ Concerto, one of the most famous concertos in piano literature, radiant and glowing, showing Beethoven at one of the peaks of his creative and imaginative powers. On the other there is the Piano Concerto No. 0, WoO 4, one of his earliest works and among the least known, a composition of masterful craftsmanship and self-assured bravura, although one that perhaps does not yet foreshadow Beethoven’s true genius.

Beethoven’s early concerto is probably best not judged in comparison to his mature works but valued for its own worth. By 1784, the year Beethoven wrote the piece, Mozart’s influence on the concerto genre was yet to be felt: his greatest piano concertos were only then beginning to emerge. Thus, Beethoven’s early concerto is more likely to have been modelled on the popular concertos of Johann Christian Bach – brilliant and pleasing, largely keyboard-centred, with modest orchestral forces providing simple accompaniment rather than having equal prominence with the soloist. Throughout, the piano writing brims with intricate and fiery passagework that at times verges on the overly complex. It is a work to impress and show off with, and in all likelihood Beethoven composed the concerto for himself to perform at the electoral court in his native Bonn, where he was employed at the time. In addition to the written piano part, multiple cadenzas and connecting passages are implied in the score. These Beethoven would have improvised at each performance, further enhancing the ‘brilliant’ effect.

The highlight of the concerto is, for me, the second movement. On paper, the highly ornamented piano part might seem overwrought, but in performance it creates a captivating atmosphere from the beginning, where the sotto voce (Italian for ‘hushed, in a quiet voice’) performance instruction proves inspired. The ‘singing’ melodic lines throughout the movement have a lyrical beauty that goes beyond being simply elegant or charming. Nor does the G minor section in the second half of the movement [track 5, 4:16] feel like a perfunctory or prescribed excursion into a minor key, but rather a scene that carries true emotional heft.

The Finale is unbridled fun. No great depth here – the traditional levity of the closing rondo is captured by the sparkling, light-fingered virtuosity of the writing. This movement is the most at ease with itself, propelled onwards by kinetic energy and full of humour and sunshine.

(A note on the performance: the orchestral score of the concerto has been lost, and the only extant source is the piano part written out in Beethoven’s hand, which includes the tutti sections reduced for piano. As an alternative to reconstructing the lost orchestration, I have here recorded the work as a concerto without orchestra, limiting myself to the remaining original material.)

If the early concerto requires us to reassess our expectations of how a Beethoven work should sound, no such mental shifts are necessary with his last* and best known piano concerto, the Piano Concerto No. 5, ‘Emperor’. In a way, the common key between the two works only serves to intensify the contrast between them when they are heard consecutively. The basic harmonic landscape is the same, which makes the astronomical leap between the earlier and later works in terms of their sound worlds and expressive power all the more staggering.

In terms of its harmonic landscape, it is remarkable how much of the ‘Emperor’ Concerto’s material is based on very simple harmonic progressions. The first movement opens with a series of written-out cadenzas in the piano part – a radical departure from the traditional position for a cadenza at the end of the movement. Harmonically, the opening is simply a progression of three basic chords (tonic – subdominant – dominant) which every music student learns in their first harmony lesson. (On the recording you can find these chords at [tr. 1, 0:00, 0:21, 0:43 and 1:16], which is identical to the opening chord.) This idea reaches an expressive peak with the interjection of the orchestra at [6:11], a line based entirely on the tonic and the dominant chords and one of the most memorable moments in the concerto.

This harmonic simplicity lends a wonderful sense of stability to the concerto, which Beethoven happily builds upon. Much of the piano writing is in the highest reaches of the keyboard, and this contrast between harmonic rootedness and the soloist’s sojourns into the stratospheric heights is something Beethoven explored throughout his late period, from the ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata to the last movement of the Piano Sonata No. 32, Op. 111.

The second movement, in the unexpected key of B major, is hauntingly beautiful. The orchestra’s chorale-like introduction, warm and rich in the lower register, is followed by a moment of radiant magic as the piano enters high above. It is as though the night-time clouds have parted and clear moonlight illuminates the scene. Beethoven then, inspiredly, repeats the entire section a third higher, in an even brighter key of D major [tr. 2, 2:24].

As an interesting aside, the structure of the second movement from the beginning and up to the repeat in D major was copied, though with very different melodic content, by Grieg in the second movement of his Piano Concerto. The two compositions later diverge: Grieg repeats the opening tutti in a majestic climax, whereas Beethoven, after a short outburst and build-up [3:01–3:46], passes the opening theme to the piano. This is my favourite moment of the concerto. The mood is gentle and loving, the few ornaments added to the chords tugging at the heartstrings. The mood remains calm as the theme passes back to the woodwinds, the piano providing a lilting accompaniment [5:04]. After a final, caressing descent, the music disappears into the depths, and Beethoven grants us another magical moment – the transition to the Finale.

Harmonically, the distance from B major to E flat major is huge, and yet Beethoven manages to cross it in a single note – the startling descent from a long-held B to a B flat [6:39–6:49]. Supported by this sustained note, the piano sketches the opening lines of the Finale – slowly, as though outside of time, pulse and metre. Just before the third repeat the piano hesitates on the last note (‘just held for a short while’, Beethoven added in a footnote, perhaps anxious to avoid a complete halt to the flow) before launching – full-voiced and full-bodied, firmly in the dance metre – into the most buoyant, boisterous and infectiously energetic of all Beethoven’s finales. Of special note is the piano and timpani duet towards the end of the movement [tr. 3, 9:17], which slows down to a crawl before the final avalanche of notes in the piano and the final repeat of the Finale’s theme in the orchestra bring the concerto to a triumphant close.

Beethoven’s life was full of highs and lows around the time he was writing the ‘Emperor’ Concerto. In the spring of 1809 he was offered long-term financial stability in the form of an annual salary by a trio of wealthy patrons: the Archduke Rudolph and the princes Lobkowitz and Kinsky. This annuity demanded nothing of Beethoven, only stipulating his continued presence in Vienna, with the explicit aim of preventing him from accepting a lucrative position in Kassel as Kapellmeister at the court of Napoleon’s brother. Shortly thereafter, on 9 April, Austria declared war on Napoleon, and a month later Beethoven experienced the bombardment of the city by the French. As the shells hit, he hid in the basement of his brother Caspar’s house, wrapping his head with pillows to protect the last vestiges of his hearing.

‘The course of events has affected my body and soul’, he wrote later in the summer to his publisher in Leipzig. ‘Life around me is wild and disturbing, nothing but drums, cannons, soldiers, misery of every sort.’ And yet the music he created in this period is some of his most vibrant and life-affirming; not just the ‘Emperor’ Concerto but also the ‘Harp’ String Quartet, the ‘Farewell’ Piano Sonata and two shorter works: the luminous Sonata No. 24 and the irreverent and light-footed Sonata No. 25. Of these, the ‘Emperor’ is the most glorious example of Beethoven’s spirit triumphing over life’s adversities. It is a work whose every note glows with light and life.

By the time the ‘Emperor’ premiered in Leipzig in November 1811, Beethoven’s hearing had deteriorated to the point where he was unable to play the piano part himself. He therefore took special care to annotate the score in detail, culminating with the so-called ‘cadenza prohibition’ – an instruction at the end of the first movement, where a cadenza would normally be played, stating ‘a cadenza is not to be played here, but one is to continue immediately with the following’ – ensuring no improvised passage would be added to the many written out cadenzas already strewn throughout the movement. The performance was a great success, with one reviewer noting: ‘the crowded audience was soon put into such a state of enthusiasm that it could hardly content itself with the ordinary expressions of recognition and enjoyment’. It remains, with full right, a perennial favourite – one of Beethoven’s numerous works to successfully combine supreme artistic achievement with immense popularity.

(A note on the concerto’s nickname: although the majestic character of the music is evident, the nickname ‘Emperor’ did not originate with Beethoven, whose admiration of Napoleon abruptly ended once Napoleon had proclaimed himself emperor. No definitive source has been discovered, though many apocryphal stories persist; moreover, the nickname is only in use in English speaking countries. But as with all nicknames, it probably would not have stuck had listeners not felt it reflected some truth in the music’s core.)

* In 1814 and 1815 Beethoven spent a considerable amount of time on another piano concerto – the projected Concerto No. 6 in D major – but he eventually abandoned it, even though a substantial part of the first movement had been completed.

Log in