i. Allegro con brio ii. Largo iii. Allegro
As the foremost pianist of his day and already flexing his compositional muscles Beethoven was inevitably going to compose vehicles for his own performing genius. By 1800 he had composed eleven of his eventual complete cycle of 32 piano sonatas, including the famous Pathétique, Op 13 (1798), together with the first two piano concertos, the Second in B flat, Op 19, written first, (1795), but published second, and the First in C major, Op 15, (1800), carrying the piano concerto genre beyond the perfection of Mozart into new territory.
The young composer had made an extensive study of the piano works of Mozart and was fully aware that he was the composer to carry the torch forward. In particular he greatly admired Mozart’s tragic C minor piano concerto, No 24, K491, and its influence is clear in Beethoven’s own C minor concerto, his only minor-key piano concerto, at least in the first movement. In fact C minor became a talismanic key for him, Op 37 one in a line of major works in the key which include their own brand of Beethovenian anguish, including the Pathétique piano sonata, the Eroica Symphony’s Funeral March, the Coriolan Overture and the Fifth Symphony.
The date of composition of Op 37 has been open to some conjecture; it’s thought by the eminent Beethoven scholar Barry Cooper that the first sketches date back as far as 1796, although it’s most likely that it was largely written in 1800 at a similar time to the composition of Prometheus and of the First Symphony. What is known is that the premiere did not take place until 5 April 1803 with the composer himself as soloist despite the onset of his deafness; the Second Symphony was premiered in the same concert. In common with many of Mozart’s concerto premieres, and despite the fact that the body of the work was some three years old, Beethoven performed his solo part largely from memory; his turner-over for the evening, one Ignaz von Seyfried, later confirmed that the solo part in front of Beethoven consisted of little more than a collection of brief squiggles which reminded him of Egyptian hieroglyphics.
Of course the solo part had definitely been crystallised by the time of the work’s publication in 1804, and included Beethoven’s own cadenzas, which remain the most commonly performed today. The concerto was dedicated to Prince Louis Ferdinand of Prussia, a great friend of Beethoven and a fine pianist and composer himself.
The hushed opening of the Allegro con brio sets an atmosphere of quiet menace, promising an orchestral introduction of volatility. The first extended forte brings a taste of the major key, but it doesn’t last long. The second subject, however, brings a more classical duet in the major between the first clarinet and first violins over a lyrical accompaniment. The end of the orchestral exposition brings a challenge to the piano which is accepted forthrightly, and the solo part leads a second exploration of the main themes, but seems intent on calming some of the angst of the first. The development is largely reflective, then the recap carries us to Beethoven’s cadenza — here the piano pulls no punches, acknowledging the more trenchant aspects of the movement; the coda begins sublimely with the piano quietly floating descending arpeggios over hushed, sustained chords and purposeful timpani, but brings us shortly to a suitably turbulent ending to the movement.
In contrast, the Adagio brings one of Beethoven’s most beautiful and heartfelt slow movements in the surprising key of E major, the piano musing by itself over the introspective opening theme before the orchestra bathes itself warmly. Woodwind solos in subsequent material are accompanied by the piano, and on its journey to its seemingly peaceful conclusion the movement sees continued sharing between piano and orchestra of the roles of prime mover and accompanist.
The finale is an ebullient Rondo despite returning us to C minor. Once again the soloist introduces the rondo-theme, then hands it to the orchestra. The episodes take us into a variety of moods, but the general atmosphere is genial, although later on there is a mysterious fugal episode in the minor. Finally a brief, flashing cadenza introduces a scherzo-like coda in C major, Presto, in an entirely new time signature — 6/8 — its humorous touches bringing an effervescent end to a concerto which began in potential tragedy.