Music Director | Orchestre symphonique de Montréal
Kent Nagano is renowned for interpretations of clarity, elegance and intelligence. He is equally at home in music of the classical, romantic and [...]
In November 1792, shortly before his 22nd birthday, Ludwig van Beethoven moved to Vienna in order to receive “Mozart’s spirit from Haydn’s hands.” Among the compositions which he took from Bonn to his musically more promising destination, was a Piano Concerto No.2 in B-flat major. He revised it to create the work with which at the end of March 1795, altogether in the Mozartian tradition, he introduced himself as composer and virtuoso to the Viennese musical public. He retained the first movement in large part. The slow movement was subjected to thorough revision, while the finale was a new composition dating from 1795; another piece, a likewise still extant rondo (WoO 6) had originally been conceived as the final movement. Even after the successful first performance Beethoven made changes on at least three occasions: in 1798 for a performance in Prague, in 1801 when the score was printed, and in 1809, when he added a detailed solo cadenza to the first movement for his pupil, Archduke Rudolf von Habsburg. In no other work by Beethoven can we trace so clearly the various stages of its musical development.
The pianistic brilliance is oriented towards Mozart particularly in the first and last movements, the modelling of the themes and the outline of the form above all in the opening passage, while the piece’s kinship with the bravura and expressive depth of the opera is evident in the first two movements. “Conversely the fioritura—an instrumental vision of a vocal practice—is introduced as a vocal prima donna technique into the piano passage. It is to the same vocal model, the same form of re-appropriation, that Chopin’s style owed its particular virtuosity from the outset.” (Harry Goldschmidt)
The cadenzas are as a rule the focus of the instrumental brilliance and eloquence. They are announced by the characteristic inviting chord, and are entirely the province of the soloist. He or she alone has to cope with them, decide what to play, improvize, play or vary previously worked out versions. With the cadence to the first movement, which Beethoven wrote in 1809 for Archduke Rudolf, he provided an example, but did not require everyone to use it. Even so, this is the one that most soloists use, for it relates closely to the material and progress of the movement, in fact even gives a fresh insight into its various events. In particular Beethoven implements the initial theme in a highly elaborate fashion and gives unexpected new insights into its potentials. The cadence is a “piece within the piece,” a kind of self-commentary from the vantage point of greater experience and from a point of view of historical detachment. It introduces an element of reflexion, which hardly anyone who knows it would wish to do without. Beethoven transforms a moment of improvisational freedom into one of compulsory detailing, and thus draws a conclusion that he had already reached in the 1795 version elsewhere, namely in the second movement, which also contains a cadence. It is announced by the usual signal chord. But what follows then? Single-part passages for the piano, with interpolations by the orchestra with the dominant theme of the movement—a heartfelt recitative, such as often precede the great operatic arias, but wordless. The adagio is set up as a great vocal scene, the cadence coming across as its quintessence, its most concentrated expression, keeping closely to the patterns of speech. The expressive virtuosity, the animated brilliance such as characterizes important bel canto arias, was later adopted by Chopin as the model for his concertante works.
The finale, a spirited “last dance” in rapid 6/8 time, is out-of-the-ordinary on account of its shifted accents, which deliberately confuse the evenness of the rhythm. They become the essence of the whole movement, determining its character in the spirit of a mad dance, in which the various themes—the main idea and the subsidiary idea with its Hungarian note—become intimately linked.
Chronologically, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major was his second. The numeration reflects the order of publication, and perhaps has a programmatic sense. It already contains what was later to characterize the concertos and symphonies of the classical Viennese composer: intensive thematic work, subliminal links between the movements, but above all the principle of contrast between the various planes of the composition. In the relation of the three movements one to another: the first and third are brisk and resolute, the second decidedly slow, cantabile, in an ethereal key. Within the movements: energetic like a French revolutionary march – “con brio” – is how the first movement starts. Beethoven shifts its subsidiary theme at first into a remote key and thus hints at the idea, character and harmonic environment of the slow movement. There is a mutual encounter of élan vital and intimate expression, the contrasts which in Beethoven’s philosophy of life functioned as the actual effective poles and found their innermost formulation in the opera Fidelio. In the finale he gathered together three themes in the manner of a round. Each of them represents a cultural sphere of its own. Whether the second, as is often asserted, parodies an old student song must remain an open question. The third, though, has a clearly Eastern European ring, and the metamorphoses that run through the first at least hint at acoustic proximity to the so-called “Turkish music” which, at the time, was not only popular but also politically topical. The military confrontation between the Habsburg and Ottoman empires only ended in 1791. In 1795 Beethoven completed the first version of the concerto, which he was to revise a number of times subsequently. The sound of the times, beneath a European horizon.
© Habakuk Traber
Translation: Michael Scuffil