Jonathan Biss Plays Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto
- February 3, 2018
From the time Beethoven arrived in Vienna in 1792, he enjoyed a reputation as the leading keyboard virtuoso in the Imperial capital, filling the absence left by Mozart’s death a year earlier. While Beethoven worked toward his grand ambitions to compose symphonies and operas, he pieced together a freelance livelihood by composing, performing, publishing, teaching and cultivating well-to-do patrons. He honored one such patron, the Russian emissary Count Johann Georg von Browne, with the dedication of his three string trios published in 1798 as Opus 9. Beethoven dedicated his next release, the three piano sonatas grouped as Opus 10, to the count’s wife, Anna Margarete von Browne, who besides being a benefactor may also have been one of his piano students.
The Piano Sonata No. 5 in C Minor (Op. 10, No. 1) comes from that early phase of Beethoven’s career when he was still internalizing the styles mastered by Mozart and Haydn, and yet the seeds of his radical future are already sown. In the wake of this sonata, composed between 1795 and 1797, Beethoven wrote two more landmark works in the same key, a string trio (Op. 9, No. 3) and another piano sonata, the Sonata Pathétique (Op. 13). These experimental compositions chafed against the pleasant stereotypes of salon music, and they established a tradition wherein Beethoven channeled his most inflamed passions into music in the key of C minor—most famously in the Fifth Symphony that came a decade later.
The tempo marking of this sonata’s first movement challenges its performer to play “very fast and with vigor,” and the dynamic markings, already bold from the outset in their forte and piano alternations, soon escalate to the more extreme contrast of fortissimo and pianissimo. After the aggressive arpeggios of the first theme, the contrasting music in E-flat major indulges in shapely melodies and fluid “Alberti bass” patterns in the left hand, a sound redolent of Mozart.
Within the “very slow” middle movement, songlike phrases dissipate or veer off path in stark and surprising ways. The music is understated and spacious, enriched by silences and simplifications where more notes would only have diluted the impact.
The finale shifts to the opposite extreme of tempo, calling for a breakneck Prestissimo tempo. It takes a bouncier, more playful approach to the C-minor tonality, but still it is uncompromising in its manipulation of the material. One cascading phrase bears a striking resemblance to a moment in the Fifth Symphony’s opening movement, both examples tumbling down the same unsettled sequence of diminished harmonies.
Aaron Grad ©2017
When World War I broke out in Europe, the 39-year-old Maurice Ravel volunteered as a truck and ambulance driver for the army. At the time, he was working on Le tombeau de Couperin, a solo piano work in the style of a French Baroque suite. In its initial conception, the work paid homage to François Couperin, the court composer for Louis XIV and a master of solo harpsichord music. (In French tradition, the word tombeau—literally “tomb”—was used to describe musical collections of a memorial nature.) Ravel did not finish the work until 1917, by which time it had acquired a more personal meaning, with each of six movements honoring friends killed in the war.
In 1919, the same year that the piano version of Le tombeau de Couperin received its first performance, Ravel transcribed four of the movements for chamber orchestra. The oboe, so prominent as a solo instrument in the Baroque era, has an outsized role in Ravel’s orchestration, starting with the fluid melody of the Prélude. Ravel dedicated this movement to Lieutenant Jacques Charlot (the godson of his music publisher), who died in battle in 1915.
The second movement, a Forlane, is based on a lively and flirtatious couple’s dance that entered the French court via northern Italy. Ravel sketched this movement before the war and subsequently dedicated it to the Basque painter Gabriel Deluc, who was killed in 1916.
The oboe returns to the fore in the Menuet, a French dance distinguished by its stately, three-beat pulse. Ravel dedicated this section to the memory of Jean Dreyfus, whose stepmother, Fernand Dreyfus, was one of Ravel’s closest confidantes during the war.
The Rigaudon, originally the fourth of six movements, serves as the finale of the orchestral suite. It pays tribute to two family friends of Ravel: Pierre and Pascal Gaudin, brothers killed by the same shell on their first day at the front in 1914. The Rigaudon is the most unabashedly upbeat movement of the four, with fast outer sections surrounding a more reflective melody introduced by the oboe. When faced with criticism that this memorial music was too cheerful, Ravel purportedly responded, “The dead are sad enough, in their eternal silence.”
Patrick Castillo ©2017
In the summer of 1809, Napoleon’s army occupied Vienna for the second time in four years. Beethoven, unlike most of his friends and patrons, remained in the city, and he passed the miserable season with little contact with the outside world. He spent some of that time finishing the Fifth Piano Concerto, his final and most substantial work in the genre. It would be the only concerto he did not perform himself, given the deteriorated state of his hearing by the time of the 1811 premiere. Beethoven’s early symphonies and concertos built upon the classical traditions of Haydn and Mozart. The work with which Beethoven eclipsed all symphonic precedents (at least in terms of sheer size) was the Symphony No. 3 in E flat, from 1803, nicknamed “Eroica” (Italian for “heroic”). The Piano Concerto No. 5, also in the key of E flat, is in many ways a sibling to the “Eroica” Symphony; in the case of the concerto, Beethoven had no part in the nickname—“Emperor” came later from an English publisher—but both works share a monumental posture and triumphant spirit. Beethoven dedicated the concerto to the Archduke Rudolph, the youngest brother of the Austrian emperor Franz. More than just a patron, Rudolph was a piano student of Beethoven’s, and the two maintained a warm friendship until the composer’s death.
The “Emperor” Concerto begins at a climax: the orchestra proclaims the home key with a single chord, and the piano leaps in with a virtuosic cadenza. The ensemble holds back its traditional exposition of the thematic arguments until the pianist completes three of these fanciful solo flights, the last connecting directly to the start of the movement’s primary theme. It is a remarkable structure for a concerto, with an assurance of victory, as it were, before the battle lines have been drawn. Even once the piano returns, the movement continues in a symphonic demeanor, forgoing a stand-alone cadenza in favor of solo escapades that integrate deftly into the forward progress of the form.
The slow movement enters in the luminous and unexpected key of B major with a simple theme, first stated as a chorale for muted strings. The piano plays a decorated version over pizzicato accompaniment, and woodwinds later intone the same theme, supported by piano filigree and off-beat string pulses. The transition back to the home key for the finale is brilliantly understated: The held note B drops to B-flat, providing a smooth lead-in for the piano to introduce the principal theme of the Rondo. The motive’s upward arpeggio generates extra propulsion through its unexpected climax on an accented off-beat, adding a dash of Haydnesque humor to a score that has all the power and majesty of Beethoven in his prime.
Aaron Grad ©2013