performed by Yefim Bronfman, Truls Mørk and Gil Shaham with the Tonhalle Orchestra under David Zinman, or below by the Chamber Orchestra of Europe under Bernard Haitink with:
Renaud Capuçon, violin
Gautier Capuçon, cello
Frank Braley, piano
So our first cello concerto isn’t really a cello concerto, or at least not all cello, since, you know, Beethoven didn’t actually ever write one. This is as close as we get, and as a concerto for piano, violin and cello, it’s essentially a concerto for piano trio. As I mentioned in this concert review, the multiple concerto I should have featured is clearly Brahms’ double concerto, but we’ve already discussed all his symphonies, so he doesn’t fit in the ‘symphony’ part. Also, as you will see, there’s a Beethoven symphony desperately needing to be discussed.
Right off the bat, I’ll say that this piece is proof that not even the great masters get it right every time; this piece could have been a delightful piano trio, and should have been, and if you disagree, I’ll also remind you that it’s all subjective.
A quick bit of googling appears to suggest that before Beethoven, no one had ever written a concerto for three instruments like this, but they certainly did afterward, and Wikipedia has a page that lists some of the most famous ones (I can’t image it’s all of them, but maybe close).
The piano trio was an important form for Beethoven, I’d say. About a year and a half ago, we discussed his op. 1 piano trios, a set of three wonderful works, and at least some people suggest the form was a strategic choice for the composer, since no one like Haydn or Mozart had put their stamp on the form yet. It was a safer bet that way, and left the young, bold composer some room to make a splash of his own without challenging the great masters (too much), and here we are 55 opus numbers later with a concerto for that same setup of instruments.
Let’s take a tally for a moment. By this time, Beethoven had written 22 of his piano sonatas, his first three symphonies, the ‘Kreutzer’ violin sonata no. 9, and three of his five piano concertos. The fourth, op. 58, was to follow right on the heels of this work. Opus 59, right after that, were the first string quartets after the set of six in op. 18; op. 59 is made up of the three ‘Rasumovsky’ quartets. So now we have an idea where we sit with Beethoven: quite nicely in his middle-ish period, right between the third and fourth symphonies.
So Beethoven’s triple concerto for violin, cello, and piano really isn’t. But I think I found where Chopin got the inspiration for the orchestral part for his piano concertos… I called it a concerto for piano trio, but Tom Service goes even further, calling it an “amplified piano trio.” There are no real cadenzas, and as he says, there’s no concerto nature to it since there is not any dialogue between soloist(s) and orchestra. They really take even a more background role than Chopin’s orchestral accompaniment while the three soloists try to converse and take their turns with the material that isn’t really enough to support this kind of heavy use.
In the first movement, and really throughout the piece, the piano part is spare, as it was apparently for an amateur pianist, the Archduke Rudolf of Austria, although there’s no indication he actually performed it. In contrast, the parts for the other instrumentalists are far more demanding. In any case, we don’t get the kind of things we’re looking for from a true concerto: orchestral interaction, a large-scale dialogue, or a cadenza of any kind. The music is at times truly charming, with a few elegant melodies that show up here and there in the first movement, but it’s kind of like the challenge of doubles table tennis: the hitting of the ball isn’t hard; it’s all the rotating and taking turns that complicates things. In its bigness and seeming extravagance (“a triple concerto!”), it loses what could have been its straightforward, simple charms, and the first movement is too long for what it is trying to be, in my opinion. I hear bits and pieces of it and think “ooh, ooh, that!” but those glimmers don’t stick around as long as I’d like them to.
The second movement is much truer to being a piano trio, or even a cello concerto, for about half of the movement. Cello enters first things feel in place: the air is clear, and things are simple and straightforward. It’s only some part through this very short, almost intermezzo-like movement that the piano and violin enter, and the orchestra is all but absent. The charms of this smaller, more compact presentation are far more evident, with everything that the first movement didn’t have, especially brevity. We end (sort of) the way we began, with cello tying over into the finale.
The finale is by far the strongest movement of the work. It’s stately-ish like the first movement, but feels more purposeful. It’s a polonaise, which lends it a bit of spirit and freeness and just a splash of intoxicating lyricism. Wikipedia says that the polonaise was “an emblem of aristocratic fashion during the Napoleonic era, which is, thus, in keeping with the character of “polite entertainment” that characterizes this concerto as a whole.”
And that reminds me, really, come down to it, it’s all about expectations. As we shall see below, in another quote, if you walk into this expecting the likes of a piano concerto or the violin concerto, I feel you are to be disappointed. I did that. But, by the time we get to the finale, especially after having listened to this piece a number of times, it kind of feels like being irritated with a person you don’t know that well, and deciding you can’t stand them, only to come around quickly and realize they’re not that bad after all… rather a nice person. When you refer to it as “polite entertainment,” I’d have to say that’s exactly what it is.
James Reel at AllMusic states that the concerto is “often treated as the less brilliant sibling of the more imposing works composed around the same time,” citing the fourth piano concerto, the only violin concerto, Fidelio, and the fourth symphony. I never thought I’d come out and criticize a Beethoven work, but I suppose it’s a matter of expectations. “Polite entertainment” it is.
In any case, we’re getting to something far more memorable and successful and monumental later this week, and after that, our first real cello concerto, so do stay tuned for some fantastic music coming up, stuff that you’re more likely to know, and that you (and I) should. See you soon.