Glenn Gould performs Ludwig van Beethoven'’s Piano Concerto No. 5

Beethoven – Piano Concerto No. 5 “Emperor” (Glenn Gould) (1970)

Accompanied by Toronto Symphony Orchestra, one of the best-known and most celebrated classical pianists, Glenn Gould performs Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 73, popularly known as the “Emperor”. Conductor: Karel Ančerl.

Glenn Gould’s memory capacity was legendary. Both his mental and finger memory made it possible for him to reproduce and play music literature many years after his last practice and performance of the same. A famous illustration of this statement would be an event that occurred in 1970, when the renown Italian pianist, Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, was unable to go through with his performance of Beethoven’s Concerto No.5, Emperor, in Toronto. Gould was given a telephone call on Thursday evening. The problem was explained, and he was asked to substitute for Michelangeli the next morning, on Friday, when the Toronto Symphony and the conductor, Karel Ančerl, were scheduled to work with Michelangeli. Gould’s answer was affirmative and good-spirited. In the space of the next few night hours, Gould rehearsed the Concerto he had not touched in four years. The program was televised and, subsequently, aired on September 12, 1970. To everyone’s amazement, Gould played Beethoven’s Concerto in front of the camera flawlessly and by heart.

Beethoven wrote this concerto, which is his last piano concerto between 1809 and 1811 in Vienna, dedicated it to Archduke Rudolf (8 January 1788 – 24 July 1831, a Cardinal, an Archbishop of Olmütz, and a member of the House of Habsburg-Lorraine), his patron and pupil.

The concerto is scored for a solo piano, two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets in B-flat (clarinet I playing clarinet in A in movement 2; flute II, clarinet II, both trumpets, and timpani are tacet during this movement), two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, timpani in E-flat and B-flat, and strings.

There are three movements:

  1. Allegro in E-flat major Despite its use of simple chords, including a second theme constructed almost entirely out of tonic and dominant notes and chords, the first movement is full of complex thematic transformations. When the piano enters with the first theme, the expository material is repeated with variations, virtuoso figurations, and modified harmonies. The second theme enters in the unusual key of B minor before moving to B major and at last to the expected key of B-flat major several bars later. Following the opening flourish, the movement follows Beethoven’s trademark three-theme sonata structure for a concerto. The orchestral exposition is a typical two-theme sonata exposition, but the second exposition with the piano has a triumphant virtuoso third theme at the end that belongs solely to the solo instrument (Beethoven does this in many of his concertos). The coda at the end of the movement is quite long, and, again typical of Beethoven, uses the open-ended first theme and gives it closure to create a satisfying conclusion.
  2. Adagio un poco mosso in B major The second movement in B major is calmly paced and delicate, being a standard contrast to the first movement. It moves into the third movement without interruption when a lone bassoon note B drops a semitone to B-flat, the dominant note to the tonic key E-flat.
  3. Rondo. Allegro ma non troppo in E-flat major The final movement of the concerto is a seven-part rondo form (ABACABA), a typical concerto finale form. The piano begins the movement by playing its main theme, then followed by the full orchestra. The rondo’s B-section begins with piano scales, before the orchestra again responds. The C-section is much longer, presenting the theme from the A-section in three different keys before the piano performs a cadenza. Rather than finishing with a strong entrance from the orchestra, however, the trill ending the cadenza dies away until the introductory theme reappears, played first by the piano and then the orchestra. In the last section, the theme undergoes variation before the concerto ends with a short cadenza and robust orchestral response.