Beethoven Piano Concerto no. 4 in G, op. 58

Performed by Maurizio Pollini and the Berlin Philharmonic under Claudio Abbado, or below by Mitsuko Uchida and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra under Mariss Jansons

Beethoven’s fourth piano concerto, with an opus number of 58, dates from the time of the fourth symphony and the Coriolan Overture, with which works this piece saw its premiere, at a private concert at the home of Prince Frank Joseph Lobkowitz in March of 1807, at which Beethoven seems to have acted as soloist.

The first public performance of the piece was at the (in)famous monstrosity of a concert at the Theater an der Wien on December 22, 1808. The concert, which lasted about four hours and had what were apparently very steep ticket prices for folks at the time, was held in a “very cold hall” under conditions that were “hardly optimal.” Robert Kahn is quoted in this Wikipedia article describing the event.

Beethoven was soloist for this first public performance as well. It was a first for many of the pieces on the program, but also a last for the composer as pianist. After this concert, he would never again perform as soloist with an orchestra. Actually, the choral fantasy, a slightly later piece, for piano, chorus, and orchestra, was performed (premiered) later on the program than the fourth concerto, so it is actually the last work Beethoven performed as soloist with an orchestra.

A review of the work, I’m guessing from the above concert, appeared in the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung stating that the work “is the most admirable, singular, artistic and complex Beethoven concerto ever,” and one should hope it would be. To say otherwise might be to suggest that the composer has stagnated or was already past his prime, which history has definitively shown was not the case. Phew. But at least what it does tell us is that the work did garner some degree of immediate appreciation and success.

That, however, did not keep it from disappearing from concert halls for some decades. It apparently wasn’t until 1836 that the work was once again performed, thanks to Felix Mendelssohn, the man who revived or rediscovered many works, or even composers’ reputations, depending on who you ask. After this, the work went on to become “one of the central works of the piano concerto literature,” says Wikipedia.

And for good reason! Every movement, every passage, every phrase of the work is superb, enticing the listener onto the next phase, for either a continuation of one thought or the introduction of a new, contrasting one. The tension in this work is sublime. This word tension is often used negatively, to describe an uncomfortable atmosphere in a tense situation, but in literature, in art, it is what propels a story forward, what gives it momentum, makes the listener need to know what happens next, and in this work, I think we hear an amazing amount of that.

But a work can’t be all tension, though, can it? Like a story, it has to have release. You can’t really have one without the other, for what we are creating is contrast. All tension, and the audience will be exhausted and confused; without any tension, there’s nothing to be released from, nothing to create that sense of satisfaction.

I won’t make this a soapbox post, but it’s something that crossed my mind the other day sitting in a taxi listening to some kind of instrumental, atmospheric “easy listening” elevator type soulless classical music attempt on the radio, a piano playing shiny twiddles with an orchestral backdrop of string sounds, and it felt entirely pointless. The only thing it had going fo it was melody, but even then, it went nowhere. It was awful.

Enough of that. Back to Beethoven.

The work is in thee movements, the first making up about half the performance time of the work, which isn’t really uncommon.

What is uncommon is the opening. As a listener today, you may not think much of it, but go listen to most of the piano concertos from around this time (there are three from Mozart’s pen we discussed a few weeks ago as examples), and you’ll notice that most of them begin with introduction and statements of the movement’s musical ideas first from the orchestra, with the piano entering after this initial introductory section is over. In contrast with that, however, Beethoven begins with piano, and the orchestra so beautifully echoes the piano’s first utterance, like the object of one’s affection coming into view. It’s perfection.

In fact, in its soft, warm entry, it reminds me a bit of Brahms’ second piano concerto, like soft, relaxing waves lapping at the shoreline at sunset. Obviously, Beethoven’s work predates Brahms’ by many decades; it’s just that we’ve discussed the Brahms already (just over a year ago, actually). Perhaps there is more similarity between these two works than just that, though. They both begin quietly, but show themselves to be works of considerable heft, as we shall see. Lastly, the relationship between piano and orchestra is different in Brahms’ later concerto, as it is here maybe with Beethoven, both being more mature works than their earlier efforts.

In any case, I just have to say the first movement is of sublime beauty. The interaction between piano and orchestra is exquisite, with that perfect Beethovenian balance of beauty and a ‘serious’ nature, real depth, always of musical integrity. Everything here has purpose.

But after this spellbinding first movement, things change drastically. The first movement closes with a reminder of the opening theme, a bright, sunny, even triumphant close. But what comes next?

The orchestra is set afire, giving the first utterance of the second movement, but the piano’s response is still soft, tender. The orchestra retorts again, but the piano doesn’t retaliate, instead seeming only to grieve. The program notes for this work written by Herbert Glass for the L.A. Philharmonic quote a statement by E.M. Forster in 1935. I can’t say I feel exactly the same about it, but it’s worth reading, as it is unsurprisingly very eloquent:

It strikes and strokes immediately, and elderly gentlemen before myself have called it ‘Beauty and the Beast.’ What about Orpheus and the Furies, though? When the movement begins I always repair to the entrance of Hell and descend under the guidance of Gluck through diminishing opposition to the Elysian Fields…. The piano turns into Orpheus, and the strings, waving less and less their snaky locks, sink at last into acquiescence with true love.

This is a short movement, only about a third of the length of the first movement, and in contrast with the threatening opening, it never explodes into the fire and brimstone we expect to hear from a movement from Beethoven that begins in this manner. It is, however, of great weight.

Things are again different in the finale. While the two parties seemed perhaps at odds in the short, pensive middle movement, the orchestra begins the finale with a playful statement, one which resonates with the piano, as it answers in kind. The orchestra asks another question, to which the piano responds again. After establishing that they agree on whatever matter is being discussed, the movement bursts to life, into one of the most glorious, triumphant exultations in music, I think. It’s literally breathtaking to the point that I find my excitement difficult to contain when it happens. It gives me chills.

Once here, the piano stands out again as a true soloist, and sparks fly as the soloist has a chance not only to do quite a bit of showing off, but with such incredible writing for the orchestra behind, and it’s so wonderful that we have a repeat of the exposition, or something like it, to give us that spectacular moment again before the central part of the movement gets under way.

I’ll be honest: I’ve not listened but once or twice to Uchida’s performance above, but I have come to enjoy very much the five concertos played by Pollini with Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic. Can you imagine, though, hearing this work performed by the composer himself, especially when that composer is Beethoven? All matters of interpretation should then likely be set aside, as the composer will perform his own work, really, I guess, however the hell he likes, and it will be ‘right.’ Listening to the final bars of Pollini’s performance, though, and the rapturous applause that ensues, I have a hard time feeling like I need any other recording of these works.

The fifth concerto, the ‘Emperor’ obviously gets lots of attention, partly because it has a memorable nickname, but it is obviously a wonderful work. Personally, though, at least for the last few weeks or months as I’ve been familiarizing myself with this earlier fourth concerto, I feel I have to argue that it deserves its place as at least an equal with the fifth, as one of the greatest works for piano and orchestra ever written.

We began this stretch of piano works with sonatas from Mozart, and then onto Beethoven, culminating in this masterpiece, but for most of the rest of this stretch of piano works, with only one exception, we’ll only be doing concertos mid-week. Stay tuned for some excellent concertos, and chamber works on the weekend that may or may not feature piano. As always, thank you so much for reading.

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