Satirino records · Beethoven Piano Concertos Nos 1 & 5
Concerto for Piano & Orchestra No. 1 in C major Op. 15
Concerto for Piano & Orchestra No. 5 in E flat major Op. 73
The Mahoney Hall, The Helix, Dublin . 8 & 9 iv 2006
Sebastian Schubert & Simon Fox-Gál
le monde est petit
'Wall on Cliffs of Moher ’ © Alen MacWeeney / CORBIS
Camerata Ireland - Eugene Langan www.eugenelangan.com
Barry Douglas - Mark Harrison
'Barry Douglas's Emperor concertois highly impressive from every angle. The opening solo cadenzas are scintillating, but he nevre loses sight of their role in the larger scheme of things. Instead they majestically prepare the way for the following Allegro, which lives up fully to Beethoven's marking con brio - "with fire". For all that, Douglas's playing can also be delicate and sensuously beautiful: this is the kind of performance that brings out the innovatory beauty of Beethoven's piano writing as much as much as the grit and rhythmic drive, and not just in the slow movement... the range of colour and expression, the rhythmic vitality and the delight in surprise make the Douglas version of the First Concerto very repeatable. The Satirino recordings are excellent too.' Stephen Johnson, BBC Music Magazine, Decdember 2006
'Concerto N° 1 is a model of intelligent playing... Regarding the Emperor, it has a purity of style and an absence of pomposity that commands our admiration. The impeccable piano playing of Barry Douglas retains the charm that has been evident for many years. His musicianship and his intelligent interpretations are in stark contrast to the horrors that we have had to endure recently.' [Grimaud, Pletnev, Mustonen] Etienne Moreau, Diapason, février 2008
It is well known that Beethoven’s so-called ‘First’ Piano Concerto was in fact his second: the concerto known as the ‘Second’ having both been begun and completed earlier. The exact dating of the C major concerto, and the date of its first performance are a matter of some controversy: more important is to reflect on the factors involved in Beethoven’s first grapplings with the problematic form of the Piano Concerto. Three particular ‘problems’ may be identified. By far the most important is the handling of the harmonic aspect of the form. Other challenges are first, the way in which the piano interacts with the orchestra in terms of the primary themes—including the problem of the double exposition—and second, the handling of the texture of the piano when the orchestra is playing.
The manuscripts which have survived suggest that it was in 1786 that Beethoven first challenged himself to try his hand at the form, starting with the last movement of the second concerto. Further sketches confirm continuing work on the B flat concerto and it is not until 1793 that we have any material relating to the C major concerto. Beethoven was thus in his mid- to late-twenties when these first concertos were written—his so-called ‘First Period’. He had already a few sets of Piano Variations, and some short piano pieces under his belt, but essentially the period of the first attempts at the concertos coincides with his first attempts at fully-fledged Piano Sonatas.
It is usually considered to be Josef Haydn who was the most important ‘influence’ on his procedures in these, and his treatment of motives in the concertos also owe much to ‘Father’ Haydn. But we need to question the nature of ‘influence’: sometimes we hear it, on the surface; sometimes not, hidden in deeper procedures. As regards Haydn, his influence is fairly audible. Most important is the ‘organic’ treatment of material: the drawing out of much material from small cells, clearly audible to the listener. Indeed there is evidence that audiences in the late eighteenth century listened to music—and increasingly—to sonata-form movements, in this way, identifying cells and following them through exposition, development and recapitulation. Both Haydn and Beethoven played with their expectations, sometimes fulfilling them, but more often than not delighting them with unexpected harmonic excursions; truncated materials; and the introduction of all kinds of new material in unpredictable places—the list of devices is endless.
While the concertos are replete with such tricks, recent scholars have suggested another crucial but far less audible influence in the first two concertos: that of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, in particular his own unparalleled legacy of Piano Concertos. In these, Mozart had already encountered the three ‘problems’ we have identified: that of the harmonic groundplan, that of texture and that of the adaptation of piano-writing to combine with an orchestra. After all, not only had Mozart wrestled with these challenges, he was victor over them not merely successfully but triumphantly.
The musicologist Geoffrey Block has convincingly shown that it was in facing the first problem—that of underpinning harmonic structure—that Beethoven learnt particularly from Mozart, adapting some awkwardly negotiated modulations in the early sketches for the first movement along Mozartian lines, even though the ‘surface’ materials of the music in no way sound like Mozart (1). The other two ‘problems’ of texture and piano-writing may also have been prompted by what Beethoven knew of the Mozart concertos: how brilliantly Mozart cuts down the orchestration of sections within his concertos to a texture where a small group of wind instruments interplay with the piano! And in terms of piano-writing, Mozart had exploited the use of the upper register of the piano by both hands, with the orchestra playing the underlying bass and harmonic infill: a texture that could not be used in solo piano music, where the pianist’s left hand was necessarily delegated to providing these underpinning elements.
In the first movement of the C major concerto the carefully-honed harmonic plan is clearly audible to the discerning listener. The first theme has a march-like, military feel, not uncommon in music of the earlier classical style which Beethoven inherited. Brass horn-calls and fanfares form a layer in the texture during the exposition of the first subject but a second subject enters in the key of E flat major, in technical ter ms, the flat submediant. Moreover, Beethoven learnt from Mozart that the best concertos, even if they explore remote keys, must above all have a clear structure and avoid wandering harmonies that confuse the listener. Thus this key of E flat becomes a structural point of reference, returned to several times in the movement. At this juncture it is prepared for by a bar of oscillation, which then becomes the accompaniment, heard on the G-string of the second violins. The same theme is then heard up a tone, in F minor, the modulation being effected by a very Mozartian sequential passage with a clearly heard dialogue of a falling scale between the oboe and the bassoon. A particularly witty touch here is that the quick, rising scales which gave an affirmative feel to the march-like first theme are now transferred to the minor, and are quietly heard as a distant strand in the orchestral texture used for the second subject.
Ideas are very much focused on the right hand of the pianist: nicely balanced in terms of phrase length, it veers between virtuosity and cheek, arpeggios and acciaccature. The second subject is introduced in the conventional key, and the section ends with an unexpected, affirmative cadence on the ‘point of reference’ we have already identified: E flat major. After this, quite an extraordinary thing happens: the piano plays, four notes in the right hand against six in the left, a static passage which seems to foreshadow a similar texture in the ‘Emperor’, the similarity heightened because the passage is in the same key as that concerto. Was it perhaps that when he came to compose the fifth, Beethoven felt not only that he could tie the concertos together, but that he had not fully exploited this idea in the first concerto? Whatever the case, the similarity is clearly audible. The recapitulation rescores and develops the first subject to include the piano which delights in notes Mozart did not have, for instrument technology had expanded not only the range of concert pianos at both upper and lower ends, but also their power.
Among the many sketches for the first two concertos are several for cadenzas for the C major concerto. These were no doubt sketches made by Beethoven as prompts for his own performances, rather than the beginnings of written-out cadenzas. The tradition was to improvise: the various cadenzas were the soloist's spot, and other pianists were also in the habit of leaving the cadenzas to spontaneous—or part-spontaneous—inspiration. Beethoven's published cadenzas, for those who preferred notated security, retain the spirit of improvisation, and give us some idea of the performance practice of the day. Beethoven bequeathed us three written cadenzas dating from 1809 of which the present recording uses the shortest.
The exploitation of mediants—keys related by a major or minor third—still seems to have been in Beethoven’s mind when he chose A flat as the key of the slow movement, essentially an aria for piano whose right-hand figurations at times suggest Haydn at his most ornate, and sometimes Mozart at his simplest. A contrast between lyricism and trochaic dotted-notes characterises the movement, each throwing the other into relief.
A few key-excursions are found in the witty Rondo which is relentless in its lively rhythm, and there are some cross-hand echoes. Essentially this is more predictable in form than the sonata-form first movement, and its tunes are catchy whichever key they appear in, quite often they are minor in the episodes, although back to major in the returns of ritornellos. The simple new material introduced after the cadenza, with answering horn-like fifths, again suggests that Beethoven had been looking at Mozart who loves to play this trick at the end of his final movements, sometimes in a way which touches upon the sublime.
As with many of the nicknames appended to pieces by Beethoven—most notably the ‘Moonlight’ Sonata—the title ‘Emperor’ for the fifth Piano Concerto had nothing to do with Beethoven, appropriate though it might seem not only in terms of the grandeur of the work in relation to the other concertos, and to the ubiquitous presence of Napoleon in Europe at the time. It shares the E flat major key of the ‘Eroica’ Symphony, explicitly associated with Napoleon.
The Concerto dates from 1809 by which time the composer was nearly 40 and the work shows all the elements of Beethoven’s middle-period works: hugely expanded and developed forms; more ‘inwardness’ in the slow movement; and a deeper approach to the finale which no longer gives ‘light relief’ after the intellect of the sonata-form of the first movement. Development and surprise pervade every section, although Beethoven does not abandon the three-movement form bequeathed to him by tradition. Expansion and development are apparent in every parameter: the broadened orchestral sound including trumpets and drums reminds us of its fullness throughout the first movement, however much the piano episodes assert the authority of the soloist. Top-register textures for the soloist are fuller than before, often chordal rather than melodic. And the movement is much longer than those of the other concertos, with much new material and surprise.
Just listen to the way the opening alternation of key chords is expanded! Essentially the chords are the standard chords of the opening of the First concerto, to take but one example. But the piano immediately intersperses the chords with a kind of cadenza before its time. Materials and motives then pile in from the orchestra retrospectively making us separate in our minds the first dialogue between piano and orchestra from the rest: as if it was a kind of introduction. The real entry of the piano occurs with a sort of metrical eingang over the orchestra. Its role in the form is far less clear-cut than in the early concertos for it joins in a dialogue which is already in progress. Soon the passage seeming to derive from the First Concerto appears, with a high legato right hand melody over low arpeggios in the bass. Rhythmic tricks proliferate here: this is miles from the post-classical predictability of the early concertos. And the orchestra with its timpani and trumpets is so much noisier!
Exploration of the minor keys is predominant in the development section, with varied textures where the piano sometimes darkly reinforces the middle-register harmony; sometimes cuts through the texture in octaves, and sometimes uses full chordal effects. Those arpeggios from the First concerto keep coming back though: an idiosyncratic, beautiful and insistent texture which in a concert performance can still the house. The recapitulation goes right back to the quasi-improvisatory beginning, of course varied and developed as is all the subsequent material: we were wrong if we thought of it as a mere introduction. Note how the piano is busy right up to the final cadence.
The extreme ‘inner’ quality of the sublime, hymnic second movement once again has recourse to a mediant key, in this case the rare sharp key of B major, enharmonically a third away from the home-key of E flat, and to intensify the interior quality, the strings are muted throughout. Listen to how the initial presentation of the theme is prolonged by interrupting devices. The piano enters with the now-familiar texture of a singing line, a little vague in its rhythm, over arpeggiated chords: Beethoven will not let this idea sleep: while it was a visionary moment in the First Concerto it becomes a hallmark in the ‘Emperor’. A ‘trill-melody’, a device hardly to be found until a celebtrated example in Ravel’s G major concerto is another striking feature in this movement.
The master-surprise is found in the seamless link into the last movement: how this must have delighted the first audiences! A downward slip of one note provides a new pedal-point over which the pianist hesitatingly introduces the material which will become the first theme in the last movement, essentially still a Rondo, but packed with episodic material which would have been inconceivable in the late eighteenth century when he first began his fruitful voyage into the genre of the Piano Concerto.
Richard Langham Smith
(1) Geoffrey Block: ‘Organic Relations in Beethoven’s Early Piano Concerto and the ‘Spirit of Mozart’, in Beethoven’s Compositional Process, ed. William Kinderman, Lincoln (Nebraska) 1991, 55–81
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 1 in C major Op. 15 [33 ’56]
1 - Allegro con brio [14’03]
2 - Largo [11’25]
3 - Rondo: Allegro [8’28]
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 5 in E flat major Op. 73 (‘The Emperor’) [38’06]
4 - Allegro [20’02]
5 - Adagio un poco mosso [7’29]
6 - Rondo [10’35]
Total CD 72’06