Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Beethoven - Piano Concerto No. 4

Beethoven wrote his 4th piano concerto between 1805-1806. It had its public premiere in December, 1808 in Vienna at the massive concert that also had the premiere of the 5th and 6th symphonies and the Choral Fantasia as well as other pieces.  It was the last time Beethoven appeared as soloist on piano with orchestra.   Most of the newer music heard was not appreciated by many in the audience. Small wonder,  considering  the concert lasted well over 4 hours, there was inadequate rehearsals for all the pieces which lead to much starting and stopping,  and the concert hall it was held in was unheated.

After this performance the 4th piano concerto was neglected for almost thirty years. It was finally revived in 1836 by Felix Mendelssohn.  Young Robert Schumann was at the concert and wrote that he sat there transfixed through the entire work, scarcely moving a muscle or even breathing. That the concerto made a much more positive impression since then and has not left the repertoire hints that the work was far ahead of its time and not understood by the audience in 1808. With the solo piano beginning the work instead of an orchestral exposition is just one of the innovations Beethoven introduced in this concerto. The first movement is far from heaven-storming. The serenity in the dialogue between soloist and orchestra colors the whole first movement with a calm intimacy that makes this opening movement much different than the previous three concertos.

The mood changes with the 2nd movement as unison strings declaim in rugged tones the opening theme of the movement. Franz Liszt was the one who began the tradition of equating this movement with the legend of Orpheus taming the wild beasts with his lyre. It is a fitting description, as the piano slowly increases its voice and domination over the orchestra until it breaks out into trills of triumph. The orchestra is now 'tamed', the piano has the last quiet 'say' as the strings purr quietly in the background.

The 3rd movement Rondo begins without break on the note being held on the strings from the previous movement. The piano enters over the accompaniment of a cello and the finale takes off in music of good humor. Beethoven's sense of humor could be very gruff and crude, even in his music, but this rondo sees him more witty and subtle, as the music has a grand time working its way to the end.

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