Beethoven: the Fourth and Fifth Piano Concertos

In a typical classical music concert today, you might hear a short work–an overture, perhaps–followed by a concerto, then an intermission, then a symphony. Or the concerto might be the featured work after the intermission, especially if your soloist is one of the greats. Generally you can count on the concert being over in 90 to 120 minutes.

Not so the concerts of Ludwig van Beethoven’s day. On December 22, 1808, Beethoven gave a concert consisting of his Fifth and Sixth symphonies, three movements from his Mass in C, a Fantasia for solo piano, a concert aria, the Choral Fantasia (a 25-minute work to which we’ll be returning!), and the Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major. I’m guessing, conservatively, that this was about three hours of music, if not more. Wow.

I heard the Fourth Concerto many years ago at a concert in Olean, NY, when I was a kid. There was a local program called “Friends of Good Music” that brought classical music performers to town four or five times a year, and the Fourth was on one of the Buffalo Philharmonic’s programs one year. Or it might have been the Rochester Philharmonic–both orchestras were often featured on FoGM programs–and I think the pianist was Malcolm Frager, but I’m quite possibly wrong there, too.

The Fourth is quite a piece, and it might be the finest of Beethoven’s five piano concertos. It opens not with the orchestra but with the piano making an entrance that sounds almost improvisatory, before the normal proceedings commence. Beethoven’s integration of the soloist with the orchestra is never finer than in this work; a true partnership is at play, and for a convincing performance the soloist must be a virtuoso, to be sure, but also possessed of confident enough ego as to work alongside the orchestra. This is not soloist-with-accompaniment; this is a whole work.

In the minor-key second movement there is an amazing passage where the piano, playing softly, engages the orchestra in dialogue. The orchestra’s tone is firm, loud–perhaps even harsh. Meanwhile the piano is responding with statements of delicacy and softness. Apparently this movement was interpreted by early critics as Beethoven’s depiction of Orpheus and the Furies. Had Beethoven intended such a thing, surely he would have written that at the top of the score.

As is often the case with Beethoven’s concertos, there is no real break between the inner movement and the finale, and the effect is always scintillating as we’re into a rondo before we even realize it. Beethoven’s rondo here is as good as ever, and there is wonderful lyricism on display as we move toward the conclusion. When I heard this concerto live, I remember the soloist (I really think it was Frager!) literally bouncing off the piano bench with delight as he and the orchestra arrived together on that final chord.

Here’s the Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major. The soloist is Mitsuko Uchida. Note how carefully she sets up that very first chord! She is leaving nothing to chance, and she doesn’t care how long the audience has to wait; she’s going to do it right.

And then we come to the last of Beethoven’s piano concertos, which is honestly my favorite of the lot, and it’s one of my very favorites of all of Beethoven’s works. Beethoven himself never performed the Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major; by then he was too deaf to be able to perform a concerted work effectively. The work was premiered in Leipzig with Friedrich Schneider as soloist, but the Vienna premiere a few months later was performed by Carl Czerny, a name familiar to many former piano students as the man who wrote all those pages and pages of sixteenth-note fingering exercises. Czerny was a student of Beethoven’s.

This concerto, like many classical works, has carried another name into history, and also like many works, that name was not given by the composer themself. Beethoven didn’t call his Fifth Piano Concerto “the Emperor Concerto“, but it has been known as such ever since. The name came from the concerto’s publisher in England. While I’m not generally fond of names given to works by people who came along after the fact and which were not really approved by the composers, I always have to admit that in this case, Emperor works. This is a work of grandeur, bright and flashy and redolent of Imperial Vienna.

The concerto opens as boldly as a concerto can: the orchestra sounds an E-flat major chord, which is then supplanted by the piano playing a virtuosic series of arpeggios. Another chord, another virtuosic reponse, then a third chord and a final virtuosic response which leads to the main theme proper. What happens now is that Beethoven spins out an exposition section so finely crafted in its symphonic styling that, like in the Third Concerto, we forget entirely that we’re listening to a concerto at all. The theme is one of Beethoven’s best, but not to be discounted is the second subject, a motif that sounds in the horns while the strings soar above it, obliggato. All of this is wonderful listening and it comes before the soloist returns to the fray with an entrance that delights in its simplicity and clarity. From then on, we’re in pure Beethoven concerto-as-partnership territory.

The second movement boasts some of Beethoven’s finest lyricism in a way that seems to look forward to the famous Nocturnes of Frederic Chopin. The theme yearns and sings slowly and seductively, with the soloist again engaging in dialogue with the orchestra, and as peace falls at the end of the movement, the piano plays two sets of arpeggiated chords in what sounds like a kind of coda–but Beethoven is up to something else here, and as the piano suddenly strikes loudly into the final movement’s Rondo, we realized that those chords weren’t chords at all but rather snippets of the Rondo’s main theme. Beethoven’s inner trickster shows up once again in this, his last piano concerto, with a theme set on a rhythm that seems to just defy the bar line. It reminds me somewhat of the last movement of the Violin Concerto, and the ultimate effect is similar as the concerto finally comes to its conclusion.

And thus we come to the end of Beethoven’s concerto output. What Beethoven has done is to bring the concerto form to its logical height from the classical standpoint; what remains to be done with concertos is pure Romanticism. Beethoven stands so perfectly between the two that it can be argued that he is, in fact, both.

Here is the Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, the Emperor Concerto, performed by Krystian Zimmerman and the Vienna Philharmonic orchestra, conducted by Leonard Bernstein. (And make sure to keep an eye on Bernstein, especially toward the end as it appears he is going to levitate under his own power.)

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