Jonathan Biss Plays Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto
- February 2, 2018
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
When Beethoven left his hometown of Bonn for Vienna at the age of 21, his patron Count Ferdinand von Waldstein sent him with this blessing: “May you receive Mozart’s spirit from the hands of Haydn.” Mozart had died a year earlier, but his spirit certainly still pervaded Vienna, especially for Beethoven, who entered the freelance scene as a keyboard virtuoso, just like Mozart had a decade earlier. Beethoven did get a chance to take some lessons from Haydn (who was back in Vienna briefly between his visits to London), and in his early symphonies Beethoven used Haydn as his clear model. For piano concertos, the line of inspiration went straight to Mozart, whose 27 examples set the standard for generations to come.
Beethoven’s Piano Concerto in B-flat, published out of sequence as No. 2, was actually his first complete piano concerto. Fittingly, it shared the same key and instrumentation as Mozart’s last piano concerto, K. 595. Beethoven began it as early as 1788 and reworked it in 1794 for a premiere the following spring, which marked his public debut in Vienna. Further revisions in 1798 and the addition of notated cadenzas around 1808 brought the work to its current form.
The concerto’s opening measures demonstrate textbook contrast and balance between the two offsetting phrases: The first is loud, rhythmically robust, scored for the whole orchestra and in the home key of B-flat; the second is soft, rhythmically smooth, scored just for strings and in the contrasting key of F. These motives develop through a high-energy movement of brilliant piano figurations, surprising harmonic shifts and galloping rhythms. The cadenza’s stark counterpoint and insistent rhythmic repetitions introduce an extra note of firmness and drama, in line with the bolder strokes of Beethoven’s “middle” period.
The central Adagio, after elaborating a gentle theme, adds its most striking detail at the point when the cadenza would normally appear. Instead of inserting a virtuosic flourish, Beethoven gives the soloist a single melodic line to convey “with great expression,” alternating with comments from the orchestra as the movement draws to a close.
The Rondo finale especially benefited from the 1798 revision, which transformed the square rhythm of the original main theme to the punchy, syncopated motive we know today. Whether on purpose or as a copyist’s error, one instance of the old rhythm remains in the piano’s last solo statement of the theme.
Aaron Grad ©2017
At twenty, Mendelssohn did what most young men from wealthy families did at the time: He embarked on a “grand tour” through Europe. Whereas Scotland inspired the stormy “Hebrides” Overture and the “Scottish” Symphony, a visit to sunny Italy sparked a symphony that, according to the composer, was “the jolliest piece I have ever done.”
Mendelssohn sketched part of that symphony while in Italy in 1830–31, and he completed the work in 1833, using it to fulfill a prestigious commission from the Philharmonic Society of London, the same group that had commissioned Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Mendelssohn made substantial revisions to the symphony’s final three movements in 1834, and he intended to revise the first movement, too, but he postponed that task and finally suppressed the symphony altogether. The work was published posthumously as the Symphony No. 4, although it was actually composed third.
Mendelssohn’s bright impressions of Italy are borne out by the bouncing themes and running triplet pulse of the Allegro vivace movement that opens the symphony. Still, this is no mere musical “postcard”—just note the finely wrought development section, which shows the work of a composer equally fluent in Bach’s formal counterpoint and Beethoven’s obsessive manipulation of recurring themes. The Andante con moto may have been influenced by a religious processional Mendelssohn witnessed in Naples, an image that fits with the movement’s walking bass and grave harmonies.
The moderate pace and smooth flow of third movement resemble the minuets native to the symphonies of Mozart and Haydn, as opposed to the more rambunctious scherzos popularized by Beethoven. In the contrasting trio section, the horns and bassoons indulge in spacious phrases that impart an outdoor quality, until the mood turns momentarily menacing with the interjection of trumpets, timpani and a stern minor key.
For the symphony’s whirlwind finale, Mendelssohn borrowed lively rhythmic patterns from Italian folk dancing. He named the movement after the saltarello, a dance from central Italy defined by its fast triplet pulse and its leaping movements.
Aaron Grad ©2017