Accompanied by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Japan-born (naturalized in Britain) classical pianist Mitsuko Uchida performs Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58. Conductor: Mariss Jansons. Recorded during the BBC Proms 2013 in London.
Beethoven composed the Fourth Piano Concerto in 1805–1806 concurrently with theFifth Symphony, and the first movement of the Concerto shares with that Symphony the same upbeat rhythmic figure, although in a very different mood. The premiere, at a private subscription concert, took place in March 1807 together with the premiere of the Fourth Symphony and the Overture to Coriolan. It was, however, at the historic Beethoven-Konzert of Dec. 22, 1808 that the general public first heard the G Major Concerto, with Beethoven wearing two hats, as conductor and soloist. This was one of those typical monster concerts at which the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, the Concert Aria “Ah Perfido” and the Choral Fantasia (Choral Fantasy) were also premiered. True to Beethoven’s form, the orchestra was poorly and hastily rehearsed; many of the orchestral parts were not yet ready; Beethoven quarreled with the musicians; and the hall was freezing cold. As deafness descended on him, it was also his last performance as a soloist.
Audiences did not take to the Fourth Concerto at first, preferring the easier Third or more dramatic Fifth Concerto. It fell into neglect until Mendelssohn revived it in 1836 and performed it frequently thereafter. It became a favorite of famed pianist Clara Schumann, who played it all over Europe and also wrote cadenzas for it.
The work is scored for solo piano and an orchestra consisting of a flute, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, timpani, and strings. Like many classical concertos, it has three movements:
- Allegro moderato: the Fourth Piano Concerto opens with the soloist – briefly but significantly – stating the opening of the main theme and the rhythmic motive that will pervade this longest of all Beethoven concerto movements. The orchestra then takes up its traditional role but starts off by offering a response to the piano in the distant key of B major and elegantly moves back into G. Thus begins a remarkably complex work in which the two forces continually engage not in the typical echoing phrases back and forth, but rather in a true dialogue with a bouquet of themes. A second theme, introduced by the solo oboe, utilizes the same rhythmic motive. The third theme seems to depart from the signature rhythm, but it returns in the accompaniment. When the soloist enters, it is with a new theme that generates a response of new material from the orchestra.
- Andante con moto: The second movement has recently engendered quite a bit of musicological controversy. The conversation between soloist and orchestra of the first movement escalates into an argument. The orchestra’s demanding fortissimo, answered by the piano’s gentle, almost pleading response has been associated with the legend of Orpheus’s taming of the wild beasts or even his confrontation with the forces of death to recover his lost Eurydice. The ease with which this program can be applied to the movement has led some scholars to suggest that it might have originated with Beethoven himself, although there is certainly no documentary evidence for the association. Indeed, it is more of an interlude between the two weightier outer movements, more in the style of the Baroque concerto than the Classical model. Just before the end of the movement is an almost anguished cry from the piano, a mini-cadenza that finally subdues the orchestra.
- Rondo (Vivace): By the time the finale opens, the mood has cleared and soloist and orchestra return to their conversation in a cheery rondo. Again, Beethoven alters the typical structure by beginning this movement with the orchestra, rather than the soloist. The two occasionally interrupt each other. And at times, the orchestra “mumbles” a commentary, reiterating the opening rhythmic pattern, as the piano performs its fanciful elaborations.