As part of the Edinburgh International Festival 'My Light Shines On' series, we are delighted to be performing Beethoven Piano Concerto No 2 with incredible pianist Paul Lewis. You can watch the full concert and explore the programme note for the performance below.
First things first: Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto isn’t his Second Piano Concerto. Strictly speaking, it’s his First. You could conceivably describe it as his Second, however, but probably not for the reasons you’d expect.
Let’s explain. The earliest surviving sketches for this B flat Concerto date from about 1787 – when Beethoven was just 17, and still living in his birth city of Bonn – though the piece wasn’t premiered until 1795, and then not published until 1801. By that time, he’d written another Concerto (in C major, completed in 1797) and had it published as his Piano Concerto No. 1. His so-called Second Piano Concerto had a long gestation, then, but he nonetheless completed it well before his First Concerto.
If we’re being truly pedantic, however, there’s an even earlier Piano Concerto, in E flat, which the composer put together at the age of just 13, though it only survives in a piano score. To be frank, its musical material doesn’t warrant much attention – but if we do decide to count that childhood work, then his Second Piano Concerto is indeed his Second Piano Concerto. But then his First becomes his Third.
Leaving aside any confusion over numbering, however, what’s most important here is the young Beethoven’s compulsion to write keyboard concertos at all. They were clearly works intended for himself to play, in order to showcase his exceptional piano virtuosity. He’d already demonstrated his pianistic skills in Bonn, but they became even more crucial to his success after his move to Vienna in November 1792, where he set about cultivating a circle of wealthy Viennese patrons, at whose impressive residences he gave numerous private recitals.
Nor is it any coincidence that Beethoven’s first compositions upon reaching Vienna – his three Op 1 piano trios and his trio of Op. 2 piano sonatas – were keyboard-focused works. In those pieces, Beethoven was keener to lead listeners down the pioneering path of drama, heroism and turbulence that he was forging. In his two early piano concertos, however, he understood that he’d be playing to a Viennese audience familiar with the music of Mozart and Haydn (with whom the young Beethoven studied in Vienna for an amicable if not terribly fruitful 14 months). It was a case of demonstrating how much he respected the traditions those earlier composers had laid down, while still pointing subtly to the more pioneering approach he would lay far barer in his later concertos.
Beethoven himself gave the premiere of his Second Piano Concerto, on 29 March 1795 at Vienna’s Burgtheater, in a charity concert held for the benefit of the Vienna Composers Society, which looked after the welfare of musicians’ widows and orphans. It was his own public debut, following his many private salon performances, and it was an enormous success, so much so that the Concerto was called for at several subsequent performances (one reason why Beethoven delayed its publication until 1801).
Significantly, however, that concert marked not only Beethoven’s own first public performance, but also one of the earliest performances of live orchestral music to a paying public audience, events that until not long previously had been the preserve of the royal or the wealthy. Beethoven thereby found himself something of a model for a new kind of musician – one not directly employed by a royal court or wealthy patron, but a more independent figure, freer to compose what they want, still reliant on smaller-scale patronage but also bearing the risks of that somewhat precarious way of life. It’s a situation that must sound only too familiar to the ranks of today’s freelance artists whose income has suddenly become all the more precarious in the past few months.
Beethoven apparently didn’t rate the Concerto highly himself, writing to his Leipzig publisher Franz Anton Hoffmeister that it wasn’t ‘one of my best’, and only asking half the fee he’d previously received for a piano sonata – though he pointedly added: ‘It will certainly not be a disaster for you if you publish it.’ With the acclaim he’d received for the piece across numerous performances, he was almost certainly forestalling criticism with a certain false modesty.
He was aware, of course, that the Concerto would immediately be compared with those of Mozart and, as we’ve noted, doffed his cap to the earlier composer, and to his teacher Haydn, in the work’s abundant charm, its elegance and its engaging humour, not to mention its very Mozartian sense of soloist and orchestra playing integrated, complementary roles rather than adversarial ones.
Nonetheless, there’s a sense of drama and contrast that marks the Second Piano Concerto out as distinctively Beethovenian: its three movements are themselves heavily contrasted with each other, its themes come at us in quick succession, and Beethoven guides us slyly into far-flung keys, leaving us to wonder at his skill in getting us back home again.
Despite the brisk, fanfare-like call to attention of its very opening, the Concerto’s first movement is surprisingly ruminative. Its lengthy cadenza, written out by Beethoven himself, comes from far later than the rest of the Concerto, and sounds like it, too: beginning with a fugue, it’s virtually a catalogue of stylistic transformations of the movement’s main theme.
The second movement is a pensive but lyrical Adagio so free in its development that it sounds like an extended fantasia, with a slow opening melody that becomes increasingly elaborately embroidered as the movement progresses. Its own ‘cadenza’ becomes something of a musical joke, albeit a rather sublime one: after the orchestra prepares us for some showy keyboard fireworks, what Beethoven offers instead is the ultimate in pared-down simplicity, marked ‘con gran espressione’, and all the more moving as a result.
Beethoven apparently dashed off the Concerto’s finale in just a couple of days. A friend of the composer, Franz Gerhard Wegeler, happened to be visiting Vienna at the time and remembered: ‘Not until the afternoon of the second day before the concerto did he write the rondo, and then while suffering from a 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.’ It’s all the more ironic, then, that it’s the Concerto’s most immediately memorable movement, whose cheeky, angular opening melody lodges firmly in the brain. A central section in the minor mode contrasts strongly with the rest of the movement, before the return of the opening material in (more or less) reverse order, and some surprisingly subdued ruminations from the soloist before the orchestra signs off assertively.
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