Beethoven – Piano Concertos 1-5 (Daniel Barenboim)

In time for his 65th birthday in 2007, Daniel Barenboim has completed a cycle of Ludwig van Beethoven’s piano concertos. Recorded live at the prestigious Klavier-Festival Ruhr in May 2007, in the Jahrhunderthalle Bochum, these recordings reflects both a very individual and special reading of Beethoven’s music and the artist’s life-long dedication to the composer. Staatskapelle Berlin; Daniel Barenboim, soloist and conductor.

Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, Op. 15

Beethoven’s 1st piano concerto was written during 1796 and 1797. Dedicated to his pupil Countess of Bratislava, Anna Louise Barbara (“Babette”) Keglevics, its first performance was in Prague in 1798, with Beethoven himself playing the piano. The program also included Beethoven’s Septet, his Symphony No. 1, along with a Mozart symphony and selections from Haydn’s oratorio The Creation.

Although this was Beethoven’s first piano concerto to be published, it was, in fact, his third attempt at the genre, following an unpublished piano concerto in E-flat major (not to be confused with Beethoven’s more famous “Emperor” concerto, also in E-flat) and the Piano Concerto No. 2, published after Piano Concerto No. 1 (in 1801) but composed almost ten years earlier.

Movements

  1. Allegro con brio The first movement is in sonata form, but with an added orchestral exposition, a cadenza, and a coda. It has a main theme repeated many times, and there are several subordinate themes. The orchestral exposition changes keys many times, but the second exposition is mainly in G major. The development starts in E-flat major, then modulates to C minor, which ends with an octave glissando. The recapitulation is in C major.
  2. Largo The second movement is in the key of A-flat major, in this context a key relatively remote from the concerto’s opening key of C major. If the movement adhered to traditional form, its key would be F major, the subdominant key. Like many slow movements, this movement is in ternary (ABA) form. Its opening A section presents several themes that are then developed in the middle B section.
  3. Rondo. Allegro scherzando The third movement is a seven-part rondo (ABACABA), a traditional third-movement form in classical concerti. The piano states the main theme, which is then repeated by the orchestra. The two B sections (subordinate themes) are in G major and C major respectively. The middle section is in A minor.Two short cadenzas are indicated by Beethoven in this movement, one just before the final return to the main theme, and another one immediately before the end of the movement, which finishes with a striking dynamic contrast; the piano plays a melody quietly, but the orchestra then ends the movement forcefully.

Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major, Op. 19

It was composed primarily between 1787 and 1789, although it did not attain the form it was published as until 1795, and was dedicated to Carl Nicklas Edler von Nickelsberg. It is finalized three years later: Beethoven did write another finale for it in 1798 for performance in Prague, but that is not the finale that it was published with. It was used by the composer as a vehicle for his own performances as a young virtuoso, initially intended with the Bonn Hofkapelle. It was published in 1801, by which time he had also published the Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, although it had been composed after this work, in 1796 and 1797.

Beethoven was the soloist at its premiere on 29 March 1795, at Vienna’s Burgtheater in a concert marking his public debut.

The concerto has three parts:

  1. Allegro con brio Written between 1787 and 1789 in Bonn, this movement is constructed like a sonata and the themes are first presented by the orchestra. The composition reflects the influence of both Haydn and Mozart. Hence, after the presentation of the first theme by the orchestra, the piano starts with a new thematic idea rendered in an acute register. There is a rather difficult cadenza composed by Beethoven himself, albeit much later than the concerto itself. Stylistically, the cadenza is very different from the concerto, but it makes good use of the first opening theme. Beethoven applies this melody to the cadenza in several different ways, changing its character each time and displaying the innumerable ways that a musical theme can be used and felt.
  2. Adagio Starts with the presentation of the theme by the orchestra, rendering the tenderness and softness Beethoven was capable of. This movement is in E-flat major, the subdominant key. Like many slow movements, it has ABA (ternary) form, where the opening section introduces the themes, and the middle section develops them. This movement was written between 1787 and 1789 in Bonn.
  3. Allegro molto The finale is constructed like a rondo-sonata with a theme taken from the Viennese folklore, through its rhythm rendering the onomatopoeic images of spring. It takes the form of a Third Rondo (ABACABA). Beethoven’s playfulness of his early period can be heard here. There is a constant angular feel within the 6/8 melody itself that Beethoven plays on with each return of the rondo theme. The C section is also highly contrasting with the others, being that it is in a minor key and more forceful and stern in meaning. Also, prior to the last appearance of the rondo theme, Beethoven brings the piano in in the “wrong” key of G major, before the orchestra “discovers” the discrepancy and returns to the correct tonic key. This musical joke can be seen in many of Beethoven’s subsequent compositions. This rondo is the one that Beethoven wrote in 1795 and premiered in Vienna that year. It does show Haydn’s influence.

Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37

As is standard for Classical/Romantic-era concertos, the work is in three movements:

  1. Allegro con brio
  2. Largo
  3. Rondo. Allegro

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’d 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.

The model for this startlingly dramatic concerto was Mozart’s C minor (K. 491), which Beethoven played in public concerts. But “model” does not mean he merely imitated; indeed, the orchestra’s traditional first exposition is so extensively developed that the soloist’s repetition risks sounding anticlimactic. Otherwise, as Charles Rosen has written with formidable insight in The Classical Style, “There are many passages in the first movement, Allegro con brio, which allude to Mozart’s concerto in the same key… particularly the role of the piano after the cadenza. But the striking development section, with a new melody half-recitative and half-aria, is entirely original, as is the new sense of weight to the form.” Beethoven wrote down that cadenza several years later, to preserve the work’s character and momentum, when implacable deafness seriously disadvantaged his public appearances at the keyboard.

To his contemporaries the slow movement came – and can still come – as a shock. Not only did he mark it Largo (which is to say very slowly), in 3/8 time, but chose the remote key of E major (four sharps, vs. C minor’s three flats). Alone, the piano leads off for 11 measures, introducing both the main theme and ornamentation that accompanies it throughout. Here Beethoven anticipated the solo opening of his G major Fourth Concerto five years down the road, although in that work he dispensed with thematic decorations, beautiful as they were (and are) in the Largo of No. 3.

Characteristically, the finale is a rondo Allegro, again in tonic C minor, with a pair of principal themes introduced by the soloist. This movement is rich in humor yet also dramatic, with a passage midway in E major to remind us where we’ve been. Following another (but brief) cadenza, Beethoven switches to C major, accelerates the tempo to Presto, and gives the orchestra the last word.

Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58

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 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 73

It is popularly known as the Emperor Concerto, was his last piano concerto. It was written between 1809 and 1811 in Vienna, and was dedicated to Archduke Rudolf, Beethoven’s patron and pupil. The first performance took place on 28 November 1811 at the Gewandhaus in Leipzig under conductor Johann Philipp Christian Schulz, the soloist being Friedrich Schneider. On 12 February 1812, Carl Czerny, another student of Beethoven’s, gave the Vienna debut of this work.

The epithet of Emperor for this concerto was not Beethoven’s own but was coined by Johann Baptist Cramer, the English publisher of the concerto.

The concerto is divided into 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, in standard contrast to the first, calm and reflective. 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.

Staatskapelle Berlin

Staatskapelle Berlin with Wiener Singverein
Staatskapelle Berlin with Wiener Singverein. Photo: wikipedia

The Staatskapelle Berlin is a German orchestra, the orchestra of the Berlin State Opera (Berliner Staatsoper Unter den Linden).

The orchestra traces its roots to 1570, when Joachim II Hector, Elector of Brandenburg established an orchestra at his court. In 1701, the affiliation of the Electors of Brandenburg to the king of Prussia led to the description of the orchestra as “Königlich Preußische Hofkapelle” (Royal Prussian Court Orchestra), which consisted of about 30 musicians. The orchestra became affiliated with the Royal Court Opera, established in 1742 by Frederick the Great. Noted musicians associated with the orchestra have included Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, Franz Benda, and Johann Joachim Quantz

The first concert by the ensemble for a wider audience outside of the royal courts was on 1 March 1783 at the Hotel Paris, led by Johann Friedrich Reichardt, the ensemble’s Kapellmeister. After the advent of Giacomo Meyerbeer as Kapellmeister, from 1842, the role of the orchestra expanded and a first annual concert series for subscribers was launched. The orchestra gave a number of world and German premieres of works by Richard Wagner, Felix Mendelssohn, and Otto Nicolai.

The orchestra’s music director, the Staatskapellmeister, holds the same post with the Berlin State Opera. The current holder of the posts has been Daniel Barenboim since 1992 (as of February 2016). Barenboim has had the title of “conductor for life” for the ensemble since 2000.

Sources

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