BEETHOVEN: Piano Concertos Nos. 4 and 5 (Barry Wordsworth/ Capella Istropolitana/ Martin Sauer/ Stefan Vladar) (Naxos: 8.553266)
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Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 - 1827)
Piano Concerto No.4 in G Major, Op. 58
Piano Concerto No.5 in E Flat Major, Op. 73 "Emperor Concerto"
Ludwig van Beethoven made an early reputation for himself as a keyboardplayer. At home he had had irregular and forcible instruction through hisinadequate father, only son of the old Court Kapellmeister to the Archbishop ofCologne and a singer under the same patron. The boy, who showed signs of neglectin other ways and who certainly failed to distinguish himself at school, hadobvious musical talent, and this was ultimately to be fostered by lessons withthe then court organist in Bonn, Christian Gottlob Neefe, whose deputy hebecame. In 1787 Beethoven set out for Vienna, with the support of theArchbishop, a younger son of the Empress, a young nobleman who had beenprevented from an intended military career by a certain weakness in the kneesthat proved no barrier to ecclesiastical promotion. Beethoven had hoped to studywith Mozart, but the illness of his mother led to his immediate return, his aimapparently unaccomplished.
By 1791, the year of Mozart's death, Beethoven had already shown considerableproficiency as a performer on the newly developing pianoforte, a fact of whichthere is independent evidence in an account of a visit to Mergentheim undertakenby the Bonn court musicians. Beethoven was able to hear the playing of the AbbeSterkel, a performance of unusual delicacy that immediately influenced his ownstyle, and was given a chance to demonstrate his own virtuosity and his amazingpowers of improvisation. By the end of the following year he was once again inVienna, seeking lessons from Haydn, to be followed by instruction from the CourtComposer Salieri and from Albrechtsberger.
Beethoven arrived in the imperial capital with useful introductions to anumber of leading families. In particular Count Waldstein, a nobleman eightyears his senior and a friend of the Archbishop, proved immensely helpful, bothin instigating the journey and in providing immediate access to a circle ofconnoisseurs in Vienna. It was not long before Beethoven established himself asa performer of remarkable imagination and skill, a reputation that was to fadewith the onset of deafness at the turn of the century, and a consequentabandonment of public performance and partial isolation from society.
At the age of fourteen Beethoven had attempted his first piano concerto, awork that now survives only in a piano score. The concerto that was to be knownas his second piano concerto was probably started in Bonn and was to bere-written to emerge in published form in 1801, after w hat seems to have beenthe first performance of the concerto in 1795, followed by further revision.
There were more extreme misjudgements of planning in the concert in 1808 atwhich the Piano Concerto in G was first played. The Burgtheater had beenengaged for an important charity concert on the same evening, so that Beethovenmade use once more of the suburban Theater-an-der-Wien, that had opened in 1801under the management of Emanuel Schikaneder, author of The Magic Flute. Herethe audience was obliged to sit in a bitterly cold auditorium - the month wasDecember - from half-past six until half-past ten, and that at a time in thehistory of music when the patience of audiences had not yet been tried by theGargantuan works of later nineteenth century symphonists. The programme includedthe Pastoral Symphony, an Italian scena, shivered through by acold soprano, the Gloria from the Mass in C, the new pianoconcerto, the Fifth Symphony (described by a member of the audience asvery elaborate and too long), the Sanctus from the Mass, a Fantasyfor solo piano and the Choral Fantasia. The last item, asunder-rehearsed as much of the rest of the programme, brought catastrophicconfusion.
Johann Friedrich Reichardt, former Kapellmeister to Frederick the Great,whose opinion of the Fifth Symphony has already been quoted, describedthe piano concerto as terribly difficult, but allowed that Beethoven playedastonishingly well, in the fastest possible tempi, praising in particular thesinging tone that the composer elicited from the piano in the slow movement.
The concerto opens, contrary to the general practice of the time, with abrief statement of part of the first subject by the soloist. The orchestralexposition follows, after which the soloist is heard again, in a more elaboraterole, which is maintained in a movement of imposing conception. The relativelyshort E minor slow movement, in which Liszt imagined Orpheus taming the Furiesby this music, has all that deep serenity that Beethoven knew so well how toconjure. A brief introduction by the strings leads to the entry of the soloist,a pattern that is then repeated. The movement is scored only for piano andstrings. The second movement is linked to the third by a brief passage ofsingular poignancy, allowing the discreet entry of the orchestra in the finalrondo, quickly dispelling the previous mood with a principal theme of cunningharmonic originality. There are episodes of a more serious cast to come in amovement in which traditional optimism finally prevails.
The last of Beethoven's five piano concertos, popularly but mistakenly knownas the Emperor Concerto, at least had imperial connections, and somethingabout it that was both innovative and martial, a sign of the times. In May 1809Vienna was once again under attack from the forces of Napoleon. Haydn, now someyears in retirement in the city, was to die at the end of the month, while mostof the leading families, including the imperial family, had taken refugeelsewhere. In October there came what Beethoven was to describe as a "deadpeace", but the year was altogether an unsettled one. During the Frenchbombardment Beethoven had sheltered in the cellar of his unreliable brother CarlCaspar, covering his head with a pillow against the noise of the cannons. On12th May, however, the city surrendered, the French occupation bringing with ithardship to householders, from whom a levy was exacted, coupled with a continuedshortage of money and food.
It was in these circumstances that Beethoven, now thirty-nine andincreasingly deaf, worked on his new piano concerto, while spending part of thesummer collecting material from various text-books for the instruction of hisroyal patron Archduke Rudolph. The work was probably completed in the followingyear and was given its first performance in Leipzig on 28th November, 1811, whenthe soloist was the Dessau pianist and organ virtuoso Friedrich Schneider. Theconcerto was later to be played in Vienna by Carl Czerny.
The Concerto in E Flat Major, Opus 73, dedicated to Archduke Rudolph,has been described by Alfred Einstein as "the apotheosis of the militaryconcept" in the music of Beethoven, a reference to popular expectations atthe time. The martial element in the work suggests comparison with the EroicaSymphony of 1803, a work that Beethoven conducted at a charity concertduring the French occupation of Vienna in 1809. The concerto opens with animpressively triumphant piano cadenza, an indication of the scale of what is tocome. This is followed by the orchestral announcement of the principal theme,one of the expectedly strong character, to be miraculously extended by thesoloist in a movement of imperial proportions. The slow movement, in B Major, anunexpected key that has a1ready been suggested indirectly in the first movement,is introduced by the strings, with a theme of characteristic beauty