Beethoven – Piano Concerto No. 3 (Brendel, Abbado)

Accompanied by the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, the Austrian pianist, poet and author Alfred Brendel performs Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37. Conductor: Claudio Abbado, one of the most celebrated and respected conductors of the 20th century.

Beethoven composed this work in 1799-1800, and introduced it at Vienna on April 5, 1803. The first sketches go back to 1797 – after he had composed the B flat Piano Concerto (published as No. 2), but before composition of the C major Concerto (in 1798, published as No. 1). Although Beethoven played the first performance of No. 3 in 1803 from a short score – no one was going to steal it from him! – he’d actually completed the music prior to April 1800, apart from a few last-minute adjustments. In other words, before he wrote the Second Symphony (Op. 36), the Moonlight Piano Sonata (Op. 27/2), or the Op. 31 triptych for keyboard.

There are three movements:

  1. Allegro con brio. This movement is known to make forceful use of the theme (direct and indirect) throughout.
    • Orchestral exposition: In the orchestral exposition, the theme is introduced by the strings, and used throughout the movement. It is developed several times. In the third section (second subject), the clarinet and violin 1 introduce the second main theme, which is in the relative major key, E-flat major.
    • Second exposition: The piano enters with an ascending scale motif. The structure of the exposition in the piano solo is similar to that of the orchestral exposition.
    • Development: The piano enters, playing similar scales used in the beginning of the second exposition, this time in D major rather than C minor. The music is generally quiet.
    • Recapitulation: The orchestra restates the theme in fortissimo, with the wind instruments responding by building up a minor ninth chord as in the exposition. For the return of the second subject, Beethoven modulates to the tonic major, C major. A dark transition to the cadenza occurs, immediately switching from C major to C minor.
    • Cadenza: Beethoven wrote one cadenza for this movement. The cadenza Beethoven wrote is at times stormy and ends on a series of trills that calm down to pianissimo. Many other composers and pianists have written alternative cadenzas.
    • Coda: Beethoven subverts the expectation of a return to the tonic at the end of the cadenza by prolonging the final trill and eventually arriving on a dominant seventh. The piano plays a series of arpeggios before the music settles into the home key of C minor. Then the music intensifies before a full tutti occurs, followed by the piano playing descending arpeggios, the ascending scale from the second exposition, and finally a resolute ending on C.
  2. Largo. The second movement is in the key of E major, in this context a key relatively remote from the concerto’s opening key of C minor (another example being Brahms’s first symphony.). If the movement adhered to traditional form, its key would be E-flat major (the relative key) or A-flat major (the submediant key). The movement opens with the solo piano and the opening is marked with detailed pedalling instructions.
  3. Rondo. Allegro. The finale is in sonata rondo form. The movement begins in C minor with an agitated theme played only by the piano. The movement ends with a C major coda marked presto.

Alfred Brendel

Alfred Brendel performs Ludwig van Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3
Alfred Brendel

Alfred Brendel KBE (born 5 January 1931) is an Austrian pianist, poet and author. He was born in Wiesenberg, Czechoslovakia (now Loučná nad Desnou, Czech Republic) to a non-musical family. They moved to Zagreb, Yugoslavia (now Croatia), when Brendel was six where he began piano lessons with Sofija Deželić. He later to moved to Graz, Austria, and studied piano with Ludovica von Kaan at the Graz Conservatory and composition with Artur Michel. Towards the end of World War II, the 14-year-old Brendel was sent back to Yugoslavia to dig trenches.

After the war, Brendel composed music, as well as continuing to play the piano, to write and to paint. However, he never had more formal piano lessons and, although he attended master classes with Edwin Fischer and Eduard Steuermann, he was largely self-taught after the age of sixteen.

Brendel gave his first public recital in Graz at the age of 17. He called it “The Fugue in Piano Literature”, and as well as fugal works by Johann Sebastian Bach, Johannes Brahms and Franz Liszt, it included a sonata of Brendel’s own composition. In 1949 he won fourth prize in the Ferruccio Busoni Piano Competition in Bolzano, Italy. He then toured throughout Europe and Latin America, slowly, slowly building his career, and participating in a few masterclasses of Paul Baumgartner, Eduard Steuermann and, most importantly, the Edwin Fischer.

At the age of 21, in 1952, he made his solo first recording, Franz Liszt’s Weihnachtsbaum, the work’s world premiere recording. His first concerto recording, Sergei Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 5 had been made a couple of years earlier. He went on to make a string of other records, including three complete sets of the Ludwig van Beethoven piano sonatas (one on Vox Records and two on Philips Records). He was the first performer to record the complete solo piano works of Beethoven. He has also recorded works by Liszt, Brahms (including Brahms’ concertos), Robert Schumann and particularly Franz Schubert. An important collection of Alfred Brendel is the complete Mozart piano concertos recorded with Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, which is included in the Philips 180 CD complete Mozart Edition.

Writing is a constant source of inspiration and expression for Alfred Brendel. He has published two collections of articles and lectures: Musical Thoughts and Afterthoughts Robson Books, (1976) and Music Sounded Out Robson Books, (1990) full of the same intellectual rigour and sly wit that he brings to his keyboard playing. Recently, all his essays have been gathered in “Alfred Brendel on Music” (new edition, JR Books 2007). A book of conversations with Martin Meyer, “The Veil of Order” (in the US: “Me of all people”) was published by Faber in 2002.

“One Finger Too Many”, has seen him depart from his usual role as a music essayist in a volume of absurd poetry. A second poetry selection in English is called “Cursing Bagels”. The literary press has praised his work on its own merit, setting aside his musical renown. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung lauded his writings as “a collection of texts which can be numbered among the sparse ranks of genuinely comic literature and which make their author possibly ‘immortal”‘.

‘Playing the Human Game’ a collected edition of his poems, has been published by Phaidron Press in 2010.

“I am not exclusively a musician, as the past few years have clearly shown,” says Brendel. “I now lead a kind of double life. There has been an upsurge of my literary life with frequent poetry readings and Collected Poems in German and French. I am looking forward to my retirement from the stage to do more writing and lecturing”.

Brendel has been recipient of many major music prizes, including the Leonie Sonning Prize 2002, Ernst von Siemens-Musikpreis 2004, Prix Venezia: Premio Artur Rubinstein 2007, Praemium Imperiale Tokyo 2008 and Herbert von Karajan Prize 2008. He received the Hans von Bülow Medal of the Berlin Philharmonic 1992, the Beethoven-Ring of the Vienna Music University 2001, the Franz Liszt Ehrenpreis 2011, the Juillard Medal 2011 and the Golden Mozart Medal of the Salzburg Mozarteum 2014.

In October 2016 he has been honoured with the ECHO KLASSIK Life Achievement Award.

In 1998 he was made an honorary member of the Vienna Philharmonic, sharing this distinction with only two other pianists, Emil von Sauer and Wilhelm Backhaus. He received Lifetime Achievement Awards by Edison, Midem Classical Awards, Deutscher Schallplattenpreis and The Gramophone. There has also been a string of Honorary Doctorates including those from the Universities of London 1978, Oxford 1983, Yale 1992, McGill Montreal 2011 and Camebridge 2012. Among Music Schools, Honorary Degrees came from the Royal College of Music, London 1999, Boston New England Conservatory 2009, Hochschule Franz Liszt Weimar 2009 and The Juillard School 2011.

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