Accompanied by the NDR Radiophilharmonie, French classical pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard performs Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37. Recorded during the 2019 Beethoven Festival. Conductor: Andrew Manze.
Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3
Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37, is a significant work in the repertoire of piano concertos. Written during Beethoven’s middle period, it exhibits many characteristics of his evolving style, marking a departure from the classical structures employed by composers such as Mozart and Haydn and moving towards a more dramatic and personal expression.
The concerto was composed between 1800 and 1801, a time during which Beethoven was grappling with the reality of his encroaching deafness. This personal challenge was reflected in the depth and introspection found in much of his music from this period. The Piano Concerto No. 3 is no exception; it is both stormy and lyrical, containing passages of introspection as well as moments of grandeur.
C minor is a key that Beethoven often reserved for his most emotionally charged works, such as the Symphony No. 5 and the Pathétique Sonata. The choice of C minor for this concerto suggests a work of deep emotional content and drama. Indeed, the piece is known for its dark, brooding character interspersed with moments of lyrical beauty.
Beethoven was also the soloist in the premiere of this concerto in 1803. Interestingly, as was common for Beethoven, he hadn’t finished writing out the piano part in its entirety for the premiere, so he played a good portion of it from memory and improvised sections, while his student, Ferdinand Ries, turned the pages of what was written down, trying to keep up with the master’s spontaneous creation.
The concerto was innovative in many ways. Beethoven expanded the role of the soloist, making the piano an equal partner with the orchestra rather than just a featured instrument. He also played with traditional concerto form, infusing his own personal style and ideas into the work, resulting in a piece that both honored the classical traditions and pushed them into new territories.
Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 is a pivotal work in the piano concerto genre, embodying the composer’s personal struggles, his innovative approach to form and structure, and his deep emotional expressiveness.
With start times in the video:
- Allegro con brio 00:38
- Largo 17:55
- Rondo. Allegro 26:24
1. Allegro con brio
The first movement of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37, is marked “Allegro con brio,” which indicates a lively tempo with spirit. This movement is written in the sonata-allegro form, which was the conventional structure for first movements in the Classical era. Here’s a breakdown of its features:
The movement starts with a powerful orchestral introduction in which the main themes of the movement are introduced. This section is characterized by its dramatic and stormy nature, consistent with the emotional intensity associated with the key of C minor in Beethoven’s works.
After the orchestral introduction, the piano enters with a flourish, presenting the primary thematic material. The exposition features two main themes, contrasting in character. The first is bold and assertive, originating from the opening orchestral statement, while the second is more lyrical and tender.
Then Beethoven takes the thematic material from the exposition and manipulates it, exploring various key areas and introducing new ideas. The development section in this concerto is notable for its complexity and the intricate interplay between the solo piano and the orchestra.
Recapitulation – the themes from the exposition return, but with some variations. The recapitulation is where the soloist gets to shine, showcasing virtuosic passages and dramatic interchanges with the orchestra. As is typical of sonata-allegro form, the recapitulation offers a resolved and balanced return of the thematic material, but with the main themes now firmly rooted in the home key of C minor.
Near the end of the movement, the solo piano is given an opportunity to perform a cadenza – a section of virtuosic display that is often partially or entirely improvised by the performer. Beethoven wrote his own cadenzas for this concerto, though pianists sometimes choose to play their own or use those written by other composers. Following the cadenza, the orchestra re-enters for a brief coda, bringing the movement to a powerful close.
The second movement of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 is a sublime and deeply introspective piece, providing a stark contrast to the drama and intensity of the first movement. Marked “Largo,” this movement is slower in tempo and offers a moment of reprieve and contemplation.
The movement begins with a beautifully lyrical theme introduced by the orchestra. The piano then enters delicately, picking up the theme and developing it further. The musical dialogue between the piano and the orchestra in this movement is tender and intimate, with each building upon the other’s statements.
Beethoven’s choice of E major for this movement (a stark contrast to the C minor of the surrounding movements) gives it a radiant and otherworldly quality. The key change helps to emphasize the movement’s role as an emotional oasis, providing a sense of warmth and solace.
Throughout the movement, Beethoven employs a simple yet deeply expressive melodic line, allowing the beauty of the theme to shine through without excessive ornamentation. This simplicity only adds to the profound emotional depth of the movement, showcasing Beethoven’s mastery in conveying intense emotions with utmost clarity.
The Largo can be described as a musical meditation. Its serene atmosphere invites introspection, with the piano and orchestra intertwining in a gentle dance. The melodies are expansive, allowing for moments of reflection and a deep sense of peace. It’s almost as if Beethoven is exploring the depths of the human soul, offering a sense of hope and comfort amid life’s struggles.
As the movement draws to a close, the music gradually diminishes in volume, leading the listener gently back to the contrasting world of the final movement. The Largo remains one of the most touching and introspective sections in Beethoven’s entire concerto repertoire, a testament to his unparalleled ability to convey the intricacies of human emotion through music.
3. Rondo. Allegro
The finale of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 is
marked “Rondo: Allegro,” signaling a return to a more lively tempo and spirited character after the contemplative second movement. The rondo form, characterized by the recurrence of a primary theme alternating with contrasting episodes, is evident throughout this movement, providing both structural clarity and a sense of playful unpredictability.
The movement opens with the main rondo theme, a catchy and rhythmic motif presented initially by the solo piano. This theme, with its buoyant and joyful character, serves as a recurring anchor throughout the movement. Each time it returns, it is varied slightly, either in instrumentation, key, or rhythmic treatment, keeping the listener engaged.
Between these recurrences of the rondo theme, Beethoven introduces contrasting episodes. These sections often provide a stark contrast to the main theme, diving into different moods or key areas, and showcasing the piano’s virtuosity. The interplay between the soloist and the orchestra is lively and dynamic, with both trading motifs and engaging in musical conversations.
An aspect of this movement that stands out is Beethoven’s sense of humor and playfulness. There are moments of unexpected turns, surprise modulations, and playful exchanges between the piano and orchestra, showcasing the composer’s wit and creativity.
Towards the end of the movement, as is customary in concertos, there’s an opportunity for a cadenza, allowing the soloist to indulge in a display of virtuosity before the orchestra rejoins for the final statements of the rondo theme.
The movement concludes with a spirited and triumphant finale, wrapping up the concerto on a high note. The transition from the introspective Largo to this energetic Rondo demonstrates Beethoven’s genius in creating a comprehensive emotional journey for the listener, ending the concerto with a sense of joy and exhilaration.
Related: Beethoven – Piano Concerto No. 3 [Brendel, Abbado]
- Piano Concerto No. 3 (Beethoven) on Wikipedia