“And I also heard one of the greatest pianists, dear Bethofen. However, it wasn’t a public concert […] instead, and much more to my taste, I heard him improvise … I think the enormous virtuosity of this dear, quiet man can be easily judged from the inexhaustible wealth of his ideas, the characteristic expressiveness of his playing and from his brilliant skills at the piano.” [according to Kerst I, 17]
For Chaplain Karl Ludwig Junker, who got to know the Bonn Hofkapelle in 1791 while he was staying in Mergentheim, “dear Beethoven” was first of all a piano virtuoso and characterised by an extremely creative imagination – a judgement that exactly corresponds to how he was appraised in his early Viennese years. At that time it was customary for virtuoso instrumentalists to present themselves to the circles of art-loving aristocrats with own compositions – not necessarily with a “concerto” but at least with an “air varié” or a “romance”. Beethoven’s piano compositions of his early Viennese years (as of 1792) were also intended for personal use. This particularly applies to the concertos with which the young genius presented himself to the bourgeois public. Traditionally, instrumental concertos as a genre were mainly intended to put the virtuoso skills of the performer into a favourable light whereas the orchestra served as a foil: with the prelude the orchestra was supposed to fill the audience with excited anticipation as to the performance of the soloist, to grant him short respites during the interludes and to finally applaud the virtuoso performance with an affirmative postlude. The relationship between solo piano and tutti was considerably consolidated in Mozart’s great piano concertos of the 1780s. They provided Beethoven with a model and his first two concertos clearly show that he had aimed at following Mozart’s prime examples.
Meanwhile it has become general knowledge that the Concerto in B flat Major was the first within a group of five concertos, despite its title “Deuxième Concert”. Its orchestration with just one flute and without clarinets, trumpets and kettledrums corresponds to Mozart’s standard model. As regards rhythm and melody the head theme is reminiscent of a “concerto militare”, a quite popular type of concert music at that time, which is also discernible in Beethoven’s piano concertos. The role of the orchestra is that of an independent, discreetly acting accompanist. It highlights the demanding solo part – which is never just for show – to its full advantage. It took Beethoven quite some time to polish up this concerto, whose beginnings date back to his time in Bonn. Beethoven always kept a simple rondo from 1792 as a final movement (work without opus number, No.18) even though he never used it. Instead he completed the Concerto in B flat Major in Vienna with a witty and lively final rondo. After several performances in Prague and other cities Beethoven noted down the final version of the solo part – which up to then he had mostly improvised while performing – and published it as Op.19.
The Concerto in C Major is, in a way, a further development but had already been published in print nine months before and was considered – even by Beethoven himself – as “the First”. The extended instrumentation for a large-scale orchestral work with complete woodwind section, horns, trumpets and kettledrums is already a step towards the “symphonic concerto”. In the composition of the opening movement the orchestra plays a much more important part: in contrast to the Concerto in B flat Major it is the first to present the cantabile theme and adds structurally important motifs to the motorvirtuoso passages and arpeggios of the solo instrument. The final movements represent the typical combination of rondo form with scherzo character that is typical of concertos – a witty play with motifs and rhythms which is clearly structured.
The pianist Alfred Brendel, definitely one of the leading experts on this genre, once said in an interview that for him Beethoven’s five piano concertos were [as regards age] “a family turned upside down”: “two teenagers, quite bright and cheerful chaps, then a young man in C minor, and the parents – the mother in G Major, the father in E flat Major.” It would be quite appealing to spin out this humorous comparison a bit further: Op.15 and 19, which you can hear on this album, would be the two adolescents, who developed into quite decent people despite some difficulties while they were growing up (one of the final movements had to be rewritten). Op.37 (No.3 in C minor) is the adult older brother who has already been confronted with strokes of fate but tried to brave them with fighting spirit (“… this will most certainly not bring me down” ) and who – despite all adversities – looks to the future with a fair amount of self-confidence. Finally, there are the parents – each of them matured according to their specific nature: the lovable mother (No.4, Op.58 in G Major), a warm-hearted, intelligent and introverted woman, and the father (No.5, Op.73 in E flat Major) the head of the family, a forceful, magnanimous, eloquent and selfconfident personality with charisma. However, all five of them can also be cheerful, even exuberant – depending on the circumstances. Such a way of looking at these works and gone over seriously might provide the listener with more insight into the works than any in-depth historical-analytical or even musicological interpretation.
Beethoven, Ludwig van
Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major, Op. 15
1. I. Allegro con brio 00:14:29
2. II. Largo 00:11:13
3. III. Rondo: Allegro 00:08:35
Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-Flat Major, Op. 19
4. I. Allegro con brio 00:14:13
5. II. Adagio 00:08:41
6. III. Rondo: Allegro molto 00:05:45