Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 3 in Cm, Op. 37

performed by Maurizio Pollini and the Berlin Philharmonic under Claudio Abbado, or the same pianist with the Vienna Philharmonic under Karl Böhm

I saw almost nothing but empty pages; 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; for he played nearly all the solo part from memory since, as was so often the case, he had not had time to set it all down on paper.

Ignaz von Seyfried, as quoted in Michael Steinberg’s The Concerto: A Listening Guide


What no critic could predict is that this concerto, rooted in the previous century and a pioneer in its own, would continue to speak as strongly and directly to the centuries that followed.

Phillip Huscher, from Chicago Symphony program notes, also below

Who doesn’t love C minor? And procrastination?

The above comment seems to speak of Beethoven’s genius as a composer and pianist, but it also perplexes me. Ignaz von Seyfried was turning (largely empty) pages for Beethoven at the premiere of this concerto in April of 1803, but the date of completion is (although questioned by some) accepted as 1800, but not published until 1804. So… were there not three years to get to writing it out? I know there was no typesetting software, but still…

The piece is orchestrated for strings with everything else (flutes, oboes, B flat clarinets, bassoons, horns and trumpets) in pairs, as well as timpani and the solo piano. It’s in three movements, typical of the time, in a slow-fast-slow arrangement.

I really enjoy this concerto, more immediately than the other two, I must say. While they’re nice, this third concerto is clear, straightforward and gets my attention from the outset (not that the others weren’t those things).But what is perhaps most elegant, admirable, historical about it is the balance with which the composer manages his individuality and the expectations of the Viennese ear. Those Chicago Symphony program notes linked above (and below) discuss the link between these two bigwigs that made themselves known in Vienna, and how Beethoven was likely giving his nod to Mozart in much the way Brahms would to Beethoven in the former’s first symphony, both giving a nod, but always looking forward.

As is typical for concertos of this time, the orchestra presents us with a first exposition, introducing the content that will be integral to the piece and later restated by the piano. It’s a crunchy, commanding C minor tune, with a powerful, almost militaristic pulse about it. What’s even better is that that thing, that idea, is so strong, so easily identifiable, that it’s pretty easy to listen to the movement and say “hey, I recognize that!” While that’s not necessarily what makes a piece great (and can even bore), it’s elaborated upon and developed enough throughout this 16-ish minute movement that it doesn’t get old. The piano cadenza (the one that Beethoven wrote) is full of runs up and down the keyboard, taking up pages of the score, but begins by stating the main theme of the piece, using it as a jumping-off point. After all the runs and showoff bits, there are markings like dolce and espressivo. The movement has everything in it: big, crunchy commanding passages, but also delicate, quiet piano trills and woodwinds. It’s a quick, enjoyable sixteen minutes.

The second movement is marked Lento, and Pollini/Abbado take that very seriously. It begins almost painfully slow. The second movement is not in E-flat major but E major, “a key relatively remote from the concerto’s opening key of C minor,” says Wikipedia. Those flourishy notes you hear in the bass starting on bar 11 (about 80 seconds in) are 128th notes. (!!!) That’s how slow this is. The piece begins quite pleasantly, but there are some more pained minor moments. Toward the middle of the movement there’s a magically delicate moment with the piano doing all kinds of runs (the movement is in 3/8) while the bassoon and flute take turns playing a simple line over it, accompanied by pizzicato strings. The opening material returns and the quite peaceful, serene second movement finishes with a little piano cadenza, similar in content to the first, but peaceful. The entire movement feels almost chamber-y, because there seems almost never to be a full-orchestra passage, and even if there is, it’s tactfully quiet.

The third movement is in sonata-rondo form (basically what the name would suggest, a combination of those two forms), back in Cm. In contrast with the first movement, both the second and third movements begin right out of the gate with piano. We’re back to an allegro marking. Pay attention for what seems like the opposite of the first movement. The piano introduces us to the theme, and it’s only later, toward the end of the first section, that it’s stated by the orchestra, ending in a crunchy C minor chord. This is followed by the winds and piano in a cool, almost aggressive sounding question-and-answer passage that quickly turns friendly, with a happy helping of humor throughout. There’s another very short cadenza, and the movement has already switched between Cm and Eb major a few times.

The movement goes through its exciting, interesting, contrasting sections, but the biggest shock of the piece is the entirely new coda, suddenly, unexpectedly, in C major, like an last-minute twist in a whodunit film, a surprise ending. It wraps up this entire concerto forcefully and dramatically and satisfyingly, as we’d expect, but in bright, sunny C major, unlike what one would expect.

The outer movements can be forceful and agitated, but never menacing or ominous, and the central movement is lullaby-ish without being dull. There’s showmanship, orchestral power, big splashing pianistic passages, little solos here and there for other instruments, lots to pay attention to, but not so much that it’s confusing or muddled or tiresome.

It’s interesting to think at this point where Beethoven was in his career. He obviously wrote tons of piano music: 32 sonatas and five concertos for the instrument, among trios and much else, but we are already through his third piano concerto and it’s only 1803. The second symphony was also premiered that night in April, meaning we’re still in the composer’s “early” period (right? thereabouts). We haven’t even gotten to the Eroica yet in his timeline. To think that at this point in his output, he’s still got seven more symphonies to go.

It seems that in most places, the fourth and fifth concertos are the ones that get the most attention, and comparing this third concerto with the previous no. 1 and no. 2, it seems apparent that he’s becoming more daring, or at least more willing to show it. It seems like everything Beethoven did in his career, from early on, was innovative, new, showed his personality, his stamp on things, and this is a vibrant, personal example of that, another tasteful, fresh work. But let’s get back to Mozart and how this is kind of a pivotal piece for the young-ish Beethoven from Bonn.

People liken this concerto directly to Mozart’s 24th piano concerto, also in C minor, and it’s easy to see why. Mozart wrote only two piano concertos in minor keys, K. 466 and K. 491, in D minor and C minor, respectively. Listening to the opening of K. 491, after Beethoven’s Cm, one can easily hear the resemblance, but this is not to reduce Beethoven’s wonderful concerto to mere imitation, even if it is the sincerest form of flattery.

In fact, this Cm concerto was supposed to be performed at a concert a few years earlier (also in April) where Beethoven had programmed one of Mozart’s symphonies (was it due to procrastination? Dunno). Those Chicago Symphony program notes on the piece speak more in-depth about Beethoven’s homage of sorts to Mozart, paying tribute without plagiarizing, and while still being individual. C minor was, however, a key that Beethoven loved, as explained by this interesting little read.

In any case, the work is not just a nice piano concerto, not even just a nice Beethovenian piano concerto. It’s a commemoration of sorts, perhaps a bow to Vienna’s beloved Mozart, but also an announcement that someone was making his presence known in the same place. Also, it’s just good music. See how history and music can make each other more interesting?

Next week, we’ll move on to another composer who lived and moved in Vienna, but was virtually unknown during his lifetime. Stay tuned.


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