We have all heard or seen performances of the big piano concertos by Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Liszt, Grieg, Prokofiev and various others. Hordes of young lions and lionesses—technically perfect and getting increasingly younger—merrily thunder through the repertoire on their prospective ways to virtuoso stardom. In terms of interpretation, the old warhorses really don’t stand a chance. The thrill and utter exhilaration of seeing a young virtuoso at work none withstanding, how do we as 21st century listeners approach concertos that may be less technically challenging but no less musically stimulating? The 2016 Gstaad Music Festival has provided us with a possible solution, by placing Beethoven’s first major orchestral composition in the hands of Martha Argerich.
Despite being titled No.2, Beethoven’s B-flat concerto was in fact written before its C major companion. The work originated in Bonn around 1790, and the first movement went through extensive revisions. Beethoven tinkered with this movement for years and the concluding rondo was only finished a couple of days before the work premiered on 29 March 1795. A close personal friend reports, “not until the afternoon of the second day before the concert did Beethoven write the rondo, and then while suffering from a pretty severe colic which frequently afflicted him… In the anteroom sat four copyists to whom he handed sheet after sheet as soon as it was finished.” Predictably, Beethoven featured as both composer and pianist in this charity concert at the Vienna Burgtheater benefiting the Vienna Composers Society. It took Beethoven another 3 years before he finally allowed this concerto to be published in 1798.
Beethoven’s B-flat concerto was not an isolated pianistic event, but an exercise in the style of its day. Anybody presenting a piano concert in Vienna at the turn of the 19th century did so in the shadow of the late Mozart. We know that Beethoven intimately knew at least some of Mozart’s concertos, so it comes as no surprise that he employs an identical orchestra to that required by the four Mozart concertos of 1784. Beethoven was extremely careful—one may even say somewhat intimidated—to craft the work with reference to its particular literature and traditions. In comparison to the bold musical statements in his first piano sonatas and trios, this concerto emerged in terms of practicality rather than ambition. After all, it was a vehicle for his personal virtuoso motivations. And while he looked towards Haydn in his string quartets and symphonies, when it came to his early concertos, his main models were Mozart, the French violin concertos of Viotti and the pioneering sonatas of Muzio Clementi. When Beethoven first presented the concerto to the publisher, he did so with the words, “which I do not claim to be one of my best.” Clearly, the concerto shows a composer more comfortable at the piano than with the orchestra, but there is a drifting lyricism that moves to startling and often darker key areas. To successfully communicate these subtle stylistic nuances, particularly prevalent in the moving dialogue of the adagio movement, takes a seasoned musician and mature pianist. After all, we are hearing Beethoven’s B-flat concerto against the almost overwhelming backdrop of all piano concertos composed ever since.
Martha Argerich plays Beethoven’s 2nd Concerto
The Concerto will be performed by Kremerata Baltica with Martha Argerich at the Sommets Musicaux de Gstaad on 29 January 2016.