BEETHOVEN: Triple Concerto, Op. 56 / Piano Concerto in D Major, Op. 61a (Bela Drahos/ Dong-Suk Kang/ Ibolya Toth/ Jeno Jando/ Nicolaus Esterhazy Sinfonia) (Naxos: 8.554288)
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Ludwig van Beethoven(1770-1827)
Diabelli Variations,Op. 120; Variations on God Save the King, WoO 78
Variations on RuleBritannia, WoO 79
Born in Bonn in 1770, Ludwig van Beethoven was the eldest son of asinger in the musical establishment of the Archbishop-Elector of Cologne and,more important, grandson of the Archbishop's former Kapellmeister, whose namehe took. The household was not a happy one. Beethoven's father, described afterhis death as a considerable loss to the profits of the wine trade, becameincreasingly inadequate both as a singer and as a father and husband, with hiswife always ready to draw invidious comparisons between him and his own father.
Beethoven, however, was trained as a musician, however erratically, and dulyentered the service of the Archbishop, serving as an organist and as astring-player in the archiepiscopal orchestra. He was already winning somedistinction in Bonn, when, in 1787, he was first sent to Vienna, to study withMozart. The illness of his mother forced an early return from this venture andher subsequent death left him with responsibility for his younger brothers, inview of his father's domestic and professional failures. In 1792 Beethoven wassent once more to Vienna, now to study with Haydn, whom he had met in Bonn.
Beethoven's early career in Vienna was helped very considerably by thecircumstances of his move there. The Archbishop was a son of the Empress MariaTheresa and there were introductions to leading members of society in theimperial capital. From Haydn he claimed to have learned nothing and his teachermust have been dismayed at times by his pupil's duplicity, but he went on totake lessons also from Albrechtsberger, well known for his mastery ofcounterpoint, and from the Court Composer Antonio Salieri, and was able toestablish an early position for himself as a pianist of remarkable ability,coupled with a clear genius in the necessarily related arts of improvisationand composition.
The onset of deafness at the turn of the century seemed an irony ofFate. It led Beethoven gradually away from a career as a virtuoso performer andinto an area of composition where he was able to make remarkable changes andextensions of existing practice. Deafness tended to accentuate hiseccentricities and paranoia, which became extreme as time went on. At the sametime it allowed him to develop an aspect of his music that some critics alreadyregarded as academic or learned, that of counterpoint, an art in which he hadacquired great mastery. He continued to develop forms inherited from hispredecessors, notably Haydn and Mozart, but expanded these almost tobursting-point, introducing innovation after innovation as he grew older. Tofollowing generations his music offered a challenge. For some he seemed to havebrought the symphony, in particular, to a final climax, and composers likeBrahms, who drew on earlier tradition, were faced with the daunting task ofcontinuing on a path that, for some, at least, seemed already to have reachedits height.
Beethoven died in 1827, leaving a body of work that has continued toprovide subsequent generations with an essential heart to their repertoire,whether in the concertos and symphonies or in the sonatas and chamber music.
It was primarily in the last thirty years of the eighteenth century thatthe symphonie concertante had won popularity, particularly in Paris. Itwas as a result of his visit to the city in 1778 that Mozart wrote his own fourcompleted examples of the genre and started work on two more, one with a solostring trio and the other for solo violin and piano. In German-speakingterritory the form won less immediate favour, although concertos for two ormore solo instruments continued to have a place. Beethoven's singlecontribution was the so-called Triple Concerto of 1804, the Concerto inC major for violin, cello and piano, Opus 56. This was apparentlywritten for the Archduke Rudolph, son of the late Emperor Leopold II, whobecame Beethoven's pupil at the age of fifteen, in 1803. The Archduke continuedhis study with Beethoven intermittently over the next twenty years, making hisown contribution to cultural life in his compositions and, above all, in hispatronage and the very practical and tactful help he extended to his teacher,for whom he was instrumental in providing, from 1809, a pension. The TripleConcerto makes relatively modest demands on the pianist, the Archdukehimself, but presents greater technical challenges to the string players, theviolinist Carl August Seidler and the veteran cellist Anton Kraft, who hadserved Haydn at Esterhaza from 1778 until 1790 and from 1795 was in the serviceof Prince Lobkowitz in Vienna. It was for these performers that the work wasoriginally intended. The work was offered, before its completion, to various publishersand finally appeared in 1807, issued by the Vienna Bureau des Arts etd'Industrie (Kunst- und Industrie-Comptoir), in which Joseph von Sonnleithner,a close friend of Schubert, had an interest. The published concerto wasdedicated to Prince Lobkowitz and the first known public performance was givenin a concert organized by the violinist Schuppanzigh at the Augartensaal in May1808. On this occasion it apparently made little impression on those who heardit, a failing that Beethoven's assiduous friend Schindler attributed to thelack of seriousness of the performers.
The Triple Concerto starts with an ascending figure played bycellos and double basses, an important rhythmic motif in what follows, in boththe principal and secondary subject material. The orchestral exposition leadsto a hushed repetition, from the first violins, of the key note of C, abovewhich the solo cello enters, establishing its primacy in the solo ensemble. Itis joined by the solo violin, the two instruments preparing for the entry ofthe piano. The exposition is of some length, allowing each of the soloinstruments a measure of prominence in figuration that often recalls, in thewriting for violin and cello, the use Mozart made of violin and viola in his SinfoniaConcertante for those instruments. The A flat major slow movement,introduced by muted strings, allow, the solo cello the statement of the singingprincipal theme. The piano provides a gentle accompaniment, as violin and cellojoin in the melodic material, moving towards a modulation that allows thedirect introduction of the final Rondo alla Polacca, where the solocello again introduces the principal theme, used to frame episodes ofcontrasting melody and key. There is a change from triple to a rapid duple timefor the closing Allegro, which provides the equivalent of a cadenza, beforethe coda proper.
It was in some haste that Beethoven, in December 1806, completed hisonly surviving Violin Concerto. He had attempted the form before, inBonn, with a Concerto in C major, for which the two later Romancesfor violin and orchestra might have provided alternative slow movements,but the only complete and surviving concerto is that in D major, Opus 61,written for the violinist and conductor Franz Clement. Born in Vienna in 1780,Clement had in the 1790s played in London for Salomon in concerts in which Haydn participated and in 1802 becameconductor at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna, a position he held for the nextnine years. He was known for his rapid powers of memory and at the firstperformance of Beethoven's concerto, finished, it seems, two days before theperformance, he also included in the programme some variations played with theviolin upside down (mit umgekehrter Violine), an example of histechnical, if not of his musical skill. Beethoven inscribed the autograph