LUDWIG van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827) Piano Concerto No 4 in G, Op 58 (1808)

LUDWIG van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827) Piano Concerto No 4 in G, Op 58 (1808)

  1. Allegro moderato Andante on moto         iii . Rondo (vivace)

 Theatr an der Wien, Vienna, 22 December 1808 – one of the most momentous evenings in the entire history of music. The weather was freezing, but Beethoven, increasingly and cataclysmically deaf, seized the opportunity to premiere no less than three of the greatest works ever committed to paper before or since, an, not satisfied with that, introduced several other works which were scarcely less eminent. During the four hours’ duration of the concert the shivering audience was privileged to witness the world premieres of the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies and the Fourth Piano concerto, together with those of the Choral Fantasia and a number of songs. The concert was also hugely important as the very last occasion on which Beethoven, scarcely able to hear anything, performed as a concerto soloist, also presenting the solo piano part in the Choral Fantasia, although given the conditions, it was a wonder that any of the musicians could play at all.

The first two of Beethoven’s piano concertos had appeared some years before whillst he was still in possession of his full aural capacity, the Second in B flat, written first but published second, and the First in C major carrying the piano concerto genre beyond the perfection of Mozart into new territory. The Third Concerto, in C minor, had appeared in 1803 during the gestation period for that titan of symphonies, the Eroica when Beethoven had scarcely recovered from the desperation he had experienced when he realised his hearing was beginning to fail, and that concerto explored a degree of angst common to many of his works 1 C minor, notably the Pathetique Piano Sonata, the Eroica‘s funeral march, the Cariolan Overture and the Fifth Symphony.

The G Major Concerto however, is still more miraculous. The opening, intoned quietly and seriously by the piano alone, to be answered just as seriously by the strings of the orchestra as they set off the opening exposition, remains virtually unique in the piano concerto canon, and presages a concerto in which there is just as much serenity .as there is torment. Compared with the grandiosity of the Emperor Concerto which would appear in 1811 the Fourth is inward-looking and cerebral, but completely engaging.

The first movement exposition proceeds with a restrained romanticism, which the solo then begins gilding with glittering passage work. The second subject once aga1.n sees the piano decorating the melodic line. Shortly the development sees dyna 1c arpeggios in the solo set against swirling orchestration carrying us through a myriad of keys before the recap again takes into the slightly more remote territory of the opening exposition. After the massive, improvisatory cadenza (Beethoven’s own), the coda when it comes muses for a moment, then rounds off the movement with almost military precision, a pre-echo of the Emperor concerto.

The brief Andante con moto explores unique ground again; the strings offer a terse challenge to the soloist in angular dotted rhythms, whereupon the piano, completely alone, responds quietly and thoughtfully as if seeking to calm the orchestra. Further cycles of this dialogue follow, until the piano finally succeeds and the strings’ mood changes to one of anticipation, which leads straight into the quietly military but also light-hearted beginning of the final Rondo. The piano gives its own gloss on the rondo theme, then the orchestra bursts with a much louder version. The episodes explore many moods with the piano and orchestra often in equal partnership. Eventually the final solo cadenza leads to the coda, at first reflective, then impish, then finally triumphant.

Notes by HDJ 12th May 2018

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Beethoven  (1770 – 1827) Overture Coriolan Op 62 (1807)

Beethoven (1770 – 1827) Overture Coriolan Op 62 (1807)

Many composers in the nineteenth century were to be inspired by Shakespeare, from Berlioz (Beatrice and Benedict, Romeo and Juliet), to Tchaikovsky (Hamlet, another great Romeo and Juliet,) to Verdi (Falstaff), and it might be thought that Beethoven’s Coriolan was an early example, drawing on the harrowing tale of the Roman Coriolanus, whose revolt against the Roman establishment had resulted in tragedy, but in fact his inspiration was a play written in 1802 by an Austrian Civil Servant, one Heinrich Joseph von Collin, a friend of the composer but – somehow – unaware that Shakespeare had written his version in 1607. The source for both plays was the true story of Caius Martius as told in Plutarch’s Lives of Noble Greeks and Romans; some five hundred years BC, he rose to fame by sacking the Volscian city of Corioli, enemy of Rome, and was honoured with the name Coriolanus and the status of Consul, but then through arrogance lost the loyalty of the Roman Senate and people and defected to the Volscians. Intent on destroying Rome, in both plays he is persuaded against an attempt by his mother Volumnia; however, in Shakespeare’s play the Volscians perceive his betrayal as treason and murder him, whilst in Collin’s Coriolan is stricken by remorse at his failings and takes his own life.

Collin’s play was first performed on 24 November 1802 in Vienna and remained current for some three years, but a brief single-performance revival in 1807, possibly to try Beethoven’s overture as a prelude to the play, was eclipsed by a rising tide of admiration throughout Germany for Shakespeare’s version, and Collin’s play disappeared virtually without trace.

Beethoven, fascinated firstly by the conflicts of loyalty which faced Coriolanus / Coriolan and the personal flaws which proved his downfall, and secondly by the relationship between the Consul and his mother, decided to write the work despite the fact that no further performance of the play was officially planned; there was no commission and there would be no incidental music, unlike the circumstances surrounding the composition of his music for another political play, Egmont, two years later.

Thus, in effect, Coriolan was written as a stand-alone concert item, and its gravitas and subject-matter raise it to the status of an early tone-poem in all but name. Beethoven clearly also identified with Coriolan’s anger and desperation, his deafness, which had caused him to contemplate his own suicide in 1802, having by 1807 become almost complete.

The work, in the tragic key of C minor, could scarcely begin more dramatically or with more searing intensity; the strings then set off a darkly conspiratorial figure which will pervade much of the piece. Two species of muscular tied rhythms fight each other – one imagines that Brahms must have admired this piece as these passages surely presage similar muscularity in the later composer’s symphonies and piano concertos. A lyrical theme depicts Volumnia’s pleading with Coriolan to avoid attacking Rome, but music of complete defiance soon dismisses it. More conspiracy ensues with lower strings and bassoon working away underneath, but once again this is rudely thrown aside. The structure of the piece is sonata form; the exposition of the material to date leads to a development and then a recap, before the crisis is reached and the opening string theme is unravelled in desolation by the cellos as Coriolan’s life ebbs away.                                     

Notes by HDJ 27 January 2018

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