Satirino records · Beethoven - Piano Concertos Nos 2 & 4
Concerto for Piano & Orchestra N°4 in G major Opus 58
The Mahoney Hall, The Helix, Dublin. 9 & 10 vi 2005
le monde est petit
‘Fog over Cliffs of Moher’ © Alen MacWeeney / CORBIS
Camerata Ireland & Barry Douglas - Eugene Langan www.eugenelangan.com
‘Douglas is the dreamer.... [he] sounds if he‘s slept with the score and woken up loving it. There’s a simple, expressive logic about his playing (as well as the occasional expressive desynchronisation of the hands).’
Rob Cowan, Gramophone
‘Whether your are ready to update your Beethoven piano concertos or just starting out, this new recording is a must.‘
Laurence Vittes, Audiophile
To get the most out of a Beethoven concerto the listener could do worse than to indulge in a bit of time-travel and put on the shoes of the audiences that first listened to his music. The musicologist can suggest three ways of thinking, a little different from our usual mindsets today.
The first is to remind us that although the twentieth century has ‘fixed’, and ‘canonised’ the five concertos, the history of their composition and performance by the composer himself was not quite how popular music history has told it. Above all we have to remember that improvisation was a fine art in Beethoven’s day and that the composer himself was known more for his improvisatory pianism than for his compositions. It is clear—for example in the case of the Fourth Concerto—that while a set of orchestral parts was undertaken by a publisher, no solo part was produced. Beethoven would play without a score, not so much ‘from memory’ as in a partly improvised way, perhaps a little more like a jazz pianist leading a band with a well-rehearsed piece.
The second is to remind ourselves how perceptive were the ears of the first listeners, having in mind, as it were, a template of sonata form (and in this case the concerto-deviants of this form) against which the unfolding of any new movement would be measured. On hearing a new work, the question in their minds would be to ask how the composer has addressed the problem of a sonata-form in a concerto. The danger is of everything having to be performed twice: the dreaded double-exposition.
The third aspect concerns Beethoven’s models: we should remember that when Beethoven began the so-called ‘second’ concerto, Mozart still had several to write and that this was a crucial period of dialogue with Haydn. To what extent did he model himself on the innovations of these two composers in the 1790s? Certainly their influence was at its most transparent then, in the wake of Mozart’s rich series of Piano Concertos composed in the 1780s and with Haydn showing him his latest symphonies, full of crafty tricks for Beethoven to purloin.
In fact the second Piano Concerto was Beethoven’s first. He began the work in 1793 and performed the piece the following year. The premiere of a revised version was given by the composer in Prague in 1798. On that occasion the Czech composer Václav Tomàšek was apparently so shaken by the experience of hearing Beethoven’s Concerto that he couldn’t play the piano for several days. It was the composer’s overriding desire to be original that shocked him—an observation which was perhaps more perceptive than he realised. On the one hand we could relate Beethoven’s increasing desire for the grandiose to the path which led from the ideals of classical balance to the unpredictability of Romanticism: the composer shaking his fist at convention rather than working within it. On the other we might observe in retrospect that the sonata principle was an evolving rather than a static concept, and that, within its remit, the delight in transgression was inherent.
The first movement of the B flat concerto has been seen as both Haydnesque and Mozartian. Roger Fiske, author of the BBC Music Guide considered it ‘arguably the most Haydnesque work Beethoven ever wrote’—largely on the grounds of its borrowing extended surprise shifts into remote key areas from his mentor’s symphonies — predominantly nos. 93–98. (1) Other commentators have stressed its similarities to Mozart’s concertos of the 1780s. The question-and-answer idea of the opening is particularly Mozartian, in its time clearly associated with a balance, if not a conflict, of contrary elements.
To some commentators of Beethoven’s day, this conflict was viewed in terms of gender—a view reawakened recently by critics interested in gendered interpretations. Thus the angular, assertive, arpeggiated dotted rhythms of the opening motive would be seen as a masculine element, while the following theme, lyrically stated by the first violins, might be seen as feminine, with its pairs of stepwise notes, its chromatic leaning-notes and its gentler dynamic. While we might question the view of certain feminist critics who maintain that the essence of Sonata Form is patriarchal (because the masculine key—and often the masculine material—finally dominates over the feminine) this movement is an excellent example of a piece which exploits to the full an interplay between the assertive and the lyrical.
For the listener eager for surprise, Beethoven—developing a reputation for unusual deviations from the norm—does not disappoint. A foursquare dominant cadence only a minute or so into the movement lead s us to expect new material in the tonic. Instead Beethoven holds our attention with three pianissimo chords a chromatic step up from the dominant and uses these as a new tonic on which to build an extended contrapuntal section. Based on the above-mentioned ‘feminine’ theme, it sounds like a development section within the first-subject area.
The piano enters with a Mozartian Eingang, and seems to continue the mood of the feminine theme before cascading down to a more masculine cadence heralding development of the opening dotted-note figure (which Fiske sees as particularly Haydnesque). It is the soloist who eventually gives us the second subject, signalled by trills and characterised by triplets. Once again Beethoven frustrates expectation with the same ‘rogue’ key of D flat that had already so boldly asserted itself earlier in the movement. Nor is this the last time the extreme flat keys will make their mark on the tonal structure, for in the recapitulation too, the closely-related flat key of G flat major is suddenly introduced for more variations on the feminine theme.
The Largo is an aria-like movement reminiscent of the most elaborate of Mozart’s concerto slow movements where both soloist and wind weave garlands with or around the main theme. Unusually there is a sort of cadenza written into the movement. After the usual signal of a second-inversion tonic chord, the piano introduces a recitative-like section marked ‘con gran espressione’, at first entirely clouded with the sustaining pedal. As if an accompagnato, fragments of the theme are interspersed, hushed and unadorned, by the strings and a sudden, unexpected—and heavenly—decoration by the flute brings the movement to a close.
The Rondo is one of those Beethovenian movements where the subversion is rhythmic rather than harmonic. By throwing the accent with sforzando marks on the second quaver he follows Haydn’s playfulness and creates a deliberately ungainly effect: only some way into the movement do we realise that this is quite a conventional finale in compound time in a sonata-rondo form whose second subject is a simple, catchy melody introduced by the soloist.
Trangression, deviation, trickery—whatever your viewpoint on Beethoven’s increasingly wayward approach to classical forms, the Fourth concerto is replete with it. It is safe to assert categorically that no-one had before begun a Piano Concerto with a few laid-back chords from the soloist, marked dolce and piano. (2) And if the B flat concerto still had elements which we could trace back to Haydn and Mozart, the G major can relate only to the pathway Beethoven was forging for himself.
It is by no means fruitless to trace a line of development between the two first movements of the B flat and the G major. The wayward keys of the former have been mentioned. In this case, sharp keys characterise the movement, riding a coach and four through the usual function of the exposition which was firmly to establish the tonic. Here, by bar six, we are way up in the key of five sharps, B major. A second theme is unusual in its continual modulation, entering on the supertonic, and wavering in many directions.
More important than such kitchen secrets, however, is the overriding lyricism of the whole movement. The concerto dates from 1805, a year after the dark C minor third concerto, and in between the Second Symphony and the ‘Eroica’. If we look at his developing piano style at this time, with the majority of his piano sonatas already under his belt, this concerto comes after the ‘Waldstein’ and is roughly contemporary with the composition of the ‘Appassionata’: Beethoven’s piano writing was already at an advanced stage of development whereas when he composed his B flat concerto he was still on his Opus 2.
There is no clear-cut question-and-answer idea underpinning this movement whose procession of first-subject themes enters in all kinds of keys. One theme, first introduced on the full orchestra (which now includes two clarinets) is typified by beginning on a dominant seventh chord whose seventh is prominent in the bass: a device to drive the piece forward if ever there was one. The improvisatory feel, already noted as a foundation stone of Beethoven’s art, is noticeable in the first piano entry where the soloist seems to play with a tiny corner of previously-presented material.
The soloist revels in the extra notes added to the top of the fortepiano by recent Viennese makers who had also transformed the instrument by the use of the three strings per note in all but the lowest register as well as the extension of the compass to six octaves. The espressivo writing in the high register is remarkable, and no less so on a modern Steinway. Conventional, but no less imaginatively done, is the virtuoso passage-work given to the soloist, often still above the Alberti-bass of the Classical era. Beethoven later wrote a cadenza for the first movement, used in the present recording.
The Andante con moto is something of an enigma, enlightened by the researches of the American scholar Owen Jander who convincingly argues that it is one of the most programmatic pieces Beethoven ever wrote. His argument, expounded in two articles in 19th Century Music (3), follows a trail first opened by the nineteenth-century German scholar Adolph Bernhard Marx in whose Ludwig van Beethoven, Leben und Schaffen (Berlin, 1859) a connection was made between this slow movement and the Orpheus myth as reworked from Virgil and Ovid, and set as opera by several earlier composers including Gluck but also by some lesser-known composers. Jander concludes that the movement—which unusually is very short, very easy to play (i.e. not very concerto-like) and has some extraordinary performance indications inseparable from the development of the new Viennese pianos—is essentially a programmatic account of Orpheus in the underworld, seeking the deceased Eurydice. His argument is persuasive, particularly focusing on the directions Beethoven gives for the use of the una corda pedal which on pianos of the day (both Viennese and English) could be subtly controlled so that either one, two or three strings to each note would be sounded. Beethoven indicates transformation-moments by stipulating the use of this pedal, and Jander surmises that the most radical of these, the moment when Orpheus looks back on Eurydice, is portrayed by a monodic trilling where the sound of the piano, previously una corda, modulates through due to tre corde. At other moments, he hears the sound of Orpheus’s harp, and of three claps of thunder mentioned in the various sources. For the questor after ‘meanings’, not to mention those who see the best source of Beethoven’s biography as his music, Jander’s articles are essential reading.
Beethoven’s subversion of expectancy in the Rondo is this time harmonic. We seem to begin in C major, the ‘wrong’ key. We come right, but the piano reinforces the gesture before any theme begins in the ‘right’ key. This extraordinary but effective use of what is essentially a plagal cadence becomes a feature of the movement which of course has countless surprises. The piano rattles through the keys as if in development but sectionality seems to have gone. Again the highest registers of what must have been a heightened resonance in this tessitura are explored. Beethoven’s own cadenza is used for the present recording, and the listener will note the expanded orchestra, which includes trumpets and timpani for the finale only.
Richard Langham Smith
(1) Roger Fiske: Beethoven Concertos and Overtures, BBC Music Guide, (London, 1970)
(2) I once saw a rather famous soloist sit side-saddle on a chair to play the opening: a master-stroke!
(3) Owen Jander: ‘Beethoven’s “Orpheus in Hades”: The Andante con moto of the Fourth Piano Concerto’, 19 th Century Music, Spring, 1985, pp. 195–212, and ‘Orpheus Revisited: A Ten-Year Retrospect on the Andante con moto of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto’, ibid. Summer, 1995, pp. 31–49
Download on iTunes
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 2 in B flat major Opus 19 [29’00]
1 - Allegro con brio [14’15]
2 - Adagio [8’50]
3 - Molto Allegro [5’55]
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 4 in G major Opus 58 [32’32]
4 - Allegro Moderato [17’29]
5 - Andante con moto [5’11]
6 - Rondo: Vivace [9’52]
Total CD 61’48