Beethoven/5: Jonathan Biss Plays Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto
- March 16
Beethoven wrote the bulk of the Third Piano Concerto in 1800, in time for a major debut concert in Vienna, but he chose to play an earlier concerto instead. After a few more years of tinkering, he unveiled the new concerto on an 1803 program that also included the premieres of the Second Symphony and the oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives, as well as a reprise performance of the First Symphony. On the day of the concert, Beethoven awoke at 5 a.m. to copy out trombone parts; then he led the program’s only rehearsals, working from 8 a.m. until breaking in the afternoon for snacks and wine; he led one more run-through of the oratorio for good measure; and finally, after a short interval, he commenced the show at 6 that evening. For the concerto, Beethoven performed off of a hastily written score that, in the words of his page turner, contained “almost nothing but empty leaves; at the most, on one page or another a few Egyptian hieroglyphs wholly unintelligible to me were scribbled down to serve as clues for him.”
The concerto’s opening measures have a balanced, Classical flavor, with a string statement in the home key matched by a wind response that introduces the questioning note of the dominant key. True to Beethoven’s emerging “middle” period style, the themes separate into essential fragments to be examined from all angles, with various rising triads, falling scales, and timpani-like alternations appearing in the foreground and background. There are also remnants of “early” Beethoven in the concerto, as in the graceful second theme and the effortless piano figurations and interplay. There are even hints of the intimate pathos of “late” Beethoven, especially in the otherworldly return of the orchestra after the cadenza.
The first E-major chord of the Largo movement could hardly be more alien, or more luminous. The movement continues as a study in contradictions: humble yet ornate, foreign yet familiar, slow yet restless. A striking exchange occurs between the flute and bassoon, trading childlike melodies over a simple plucked background, while the piano issues gusts of sound blurred by the sustain pedal. The Rondo finale returns to the home key with a theme that lands heavily on an unresolved A-flat; it is the same note that, in a different guise, defined the bright harmonies of the slow movement. (A-flat is also known as G-sharp, the major third in the key of E.) Later in the movement, the same musical pun turns A-flat back into G-sharp, and the key of E returns briefly to put a radiant new sheen on the movement’s central theme. The rich range of characters in this finale confirms how much Beethoven learned from Mozart, whose piano concertos could be downright operatic. At the same time, the daring harmonies and uncompromising melodies of the Third Concerto are willful and muscular in a way that could only come from Beethoven.
Aaron Grad ©2014