Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 1 in C, op. 15

performed by the Vienna Philharmonic under Eugen Jochum, Maurizio Pollini, piano

 

or below, an excellent and entertaining performance with Leonard Bernstein conducting the Vienna Philharmonic from the piano 

In thinking about piano concertos and standard repertoire in general, it has become glaringly obvious that I have neglected much of the really famous stuff. I’ve neglected Mozart and Beethoven and Haydn and Schubert in favor of Prokofiev and Scriabin and a handful of obscure composers, not to mention a recent fascination with 20th century atonal stuff. And after the 100th post last week, it’s time to start working to remedy these negligences.
I don’t want to start talking again (maybe you haven’t read any of that yet; I’ve been doing a lot of writing in advance these days, and talking about a few things repeatedly) about how I’ve been intrigued lately by far more challenging and modern styles of music, and the classical era has been neglected as a result. I don’t want to say that I found it boring, but I can at least say I found things like Mahler and Scriabin and Schoenberg far more interesting, as in, they piqued my interest more, not as in Mozart and Haydn are uninteresting.
So a centennial+one isn’t a super memorable post, but I figured it was as good a time as any to get around to Beethoven. I have done exactly none of his piano works, solo or otherwise, and it is high time we change that. There’s also a sneak peek little hidden clue as to what’s on the way in the next few weeks after our regularly-scheduled stretch of piano pieces. So that’s there to look forward to.
To start with, I’m working a lot harder on scheduling the blog in a logical, organized manner. The disadvantage to that is that I don’t have a whole lot of freedom for “oh, I’m seeing this piece in a last-minute concert next week, so I’ll write about it,” which is sad, but the advantages still outweigh that. For one, I have more time to prepare and really get familiar with something (and hopefully come to like it), and can also give myself homework, like “In six weeks you’ve got to write about [some piece I’ve never listened to] so you better get started,” but even six weeks feels rushed. I have the blog scheduled out (tentatively, but pretty solidly and tightly organized) until around March 2016, and it’s scheduled in chunks: three or four weeks of one type of thing, a few weeks of something else, and it’s much easier to organize in blocks. What I haven’t accounted for is like, palate-cleanser sort of between-series gear-changing posts, like next week’s, so those may get moved to Tuesday or Wednesday if I feel the need to put some space between more major works or series.
In any case, I figured this piece fits well here, and it’s as good a time as any to start work on something I have neglected for too long.
At first listen, it’s just classical music. But once I get out of the mentality of expecting something modern or complex or paradigm-shift challenging from it, there is just stunning beauty. Like, how have I not come across this earlier? I’m a little bit late to the Beethoven party.

I have come to love this piece, but without analyzing it and explaining it bar-for-bar, it’s hard for me to explain why, aside obviously from its stunning beauty. I think what we should start with here is a little bit about the piece itself.
As Uchida mentioned last week, it is Beethoven’s first published piano concerto, but not his first attempt at the genre. It was written in 1796-97, but after (what is now) his second piano concerto in Bb and another abandoned endeavor. He switched the two around for what can be summed up as shock value. It is his op. 15, and was chosen to be his first piece in the genre to make a big impression. It was premiered in Prague in 1798, with the composer at the piano, playing a piano that was tuned a half-step flat, meaning he had to transpose it a semitone up, into C#, to play his concerto in C major, which he did at sight. That is mind-blowing.
What’s so pleasant about this piece, I believe, comes from the balance Beethoven struck in this piece. He took what his teacher (Haydn) and other classical composers (Mozart) had done before him, paid homage to it, but respectfully put his own stamp on it. These two distinct characteristics are very clear in the work, and as Uchida says, show from the beginning the composer’s style and personality.
One of the most enjoyable things about this piece, I think, from a complete newbie listener perspective, is that the themes are so clearly delineated: when one shows up, you know exactly what it is. Just listen to the first five minutes of the first movement. The piano hasn’t even made an appearance yet, and while the orchestra has some introductory material that we never revisit, just in this first little section, there is so much material presented, and it’s so stinking good. The first movement is quite plump. We have a longish orchestral introduction, then a full sonata form (as would be expected) with cadenza and piano-less coda.
The flip side of the “identifiable themes” argument is that they take on so many shapes within their respective movements. There is such structure, lyricism and logic to the entire piece, and Beethoven’s harmonics and key changes are like huge splashes of color thrown in at just the right places. While it seems to be thoroughly happy and frilly, it’s not all bunnies and puppies and flowers, There is that underlying “spirituality” that kind of pulls you along and sucks you in, and it has a definite seriousness to it. The first movement is just spectacular; it has its moments of gripping drama and stunning beauty and excitement, but what’s even better about it is that there are two more movements to go! Oh, that cadenza is also pretty hefty (one of the three options for this cadenza, anyway).
The second movement is pure quiet beauty. It opens with the piano from the beginning, and it is sentimental, pleasant, and almost nostalgic. It’s in Ab major, not necessarily a related key to the C major of the piece. It’s in ternary form, ABA, with some different material presented throughout the movement. The second movement is as beautiful and lyrical and moving as the first was exciting and dramatic. It’s really wonderful. The real gem of this movement is the featuring of the clarinet in the last half of the movement. It gets lots of airtime holding the main themes with the piano, and it’s really tenderly beautiful. Remember that.
The third movement is just…. splendidly exciting… it’s goosebump-inducing breathtaking energetic beauty. It has a lyrical, kind of expressive nature, but with such fervor and excitement. I just love it. Bernstein’s expression and emotion in conducting the opening of the third movement was what made me finally decide to include that video above. Not only does it take intense precision and deep familiarity with the music to perform and conduct scoreless, he does it with such passion and enjoyment. I still prefer Pollini’s performance (could it possibly be the best?) but it is nice to see someone enjoying themselves so much.

I know I’ve used many of the same words repeatedly in this article, and honestly, it doesn’t do the piece justice. I feel I can’t be articulate enough to describe the pristine, crisp, polished beauty of this piece, even from a non-analytical perspective. What I can say is that it’s intimidating to pretend like I know something about this piece or have something to say about it that hasn’t been said yet.
But remember, this blog is primarily about me and sharing my experiences with you so that perhaps you can enjoy some of this as much as I have. And what have I learned from this? That there’s more to perhaps the world’s most famous classical composer than meets the eye. It’s not just “oh that’s really pretty.” It’s as grippingly, stick-with-you gorgeous as the third movement of Mahler’s first symphony was hauntingly and grippingly mournful. Does that help at all?
It’s also musically significant. It’s solidly in the classical era, but even as an opus 15, gives us glimpses of what this man will do, and I think those decisions were intentional. They weren’t accidents or premonitions of what the later Beethoven would be. Uchida says it’s all there, and I’m no historian, but it leads me to believe that Beethoven walked into his career with a gameplan, knew what he wanted, and knew how to get it; he had statements to made, and he made them, and they’re so beautiful to listen to.
This marks the end of our teeny little week of Beethoven, as well as our current piano phase. We’re heading into something else for the next month, and something else (that I am extremely excited about) after that, so stay tuned.
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