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Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3
If there’s a key in Beethoven associated with high drama, it is C minor: he used it for the Symphony No. 5, the ‘Pathétique’ Sonata, much later his last piano sonata, Op. 111, and the Piano Concerto No. 3. This was written as the 19th century was taking wing; its first performance, given by the composer himself, was on 5 April 1803. Only six months earlier, Beethoven had experienced the terrible crisis in which he faced up in earnest to his hearing loss. His Heiligenstadt Testament, the agonising document intended as a will and addressed to his brothers, revealed that he had considered taking his own life, but felt unable “to leave the world until I have brought forth all that is within me”.
His answer to that devastating episode was a decision to jettison his earlier methods and find a “new path”. Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 pushes the envelope further and deeper than he had formerly attempted in this genre: this is the darkest of emotional spheres, while the slow movement – in the ‘Eroica’ key of E flat major – travels to a deep, inward world where he, and we, find untold realms of peace.
Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4
In the Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Beethoven inhabits new worlds that are both brave and breathtaking. It is brave, for a start, to begin a concerto with the soloist playing alone, very quietly. The piano’s initial phrase – a soft G major chord that pulses, then expands towards a questioning cadence – poses a challenge to the orchestra, which responds from faraway B major, adding to the impression that this music comes from a remote sphere with a touch of magic to it, unlike anything we have heard before. The mood is inward-looking, peculiarly visionary: a long way from the humour, dazzle and storms of the earlier three works.
The slow movement again finds piano and orchestra in conversation: an aggressive, jagged idea is delivered in unison by the strings, then calmed by a hymnlike intonation from the soloist, who seems to adopt the role of prophet, orator or therapist (take your pick). At times the effect has been compared to the story of Orpheus calming wild animals with his music. The finale is a light-footed, somewhat elusive rondo, the piano’s lines much garlanded, the orchestra sympathetic, and the two working harmoniously together.
This concerto dates from 1805-6 and was first heard in a private performance at the palace of Beethoven’s patron, Prince Lobkowitz. Its public premiere took place on 22 December 1808 in a now legendary concert that Beethoven staged at the Theater an der Wien, which also included the premieres of the symphonies nos. 5 and 6 plus the Choral Fantasia – an evening so long, demanding and freezing cold that much of the audience left before the end.
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Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5
The last concerto, subtitled the ‘Emperor’, is in Beethoven’s old favourite key of E flat major and it lives up to its nickname in terms of grandeur, poise and scale of conception. This is the only one of Beethoven’s piano concertos that the composer did not perform himself: by the time of its premiere in January 1811, his hearing loss was making that impossible. His patron and pupil Archduke Rudolph was its first soloist, again at Prince Lobkowitz’s palace – and he must have been pretty accomplished, since Beethoven presents his pianist with a serious technical workout here.