AT A guess, the best known and most popular Beethoven piano concerto is the majestic No 5, but this one is my favourite. The first time I heard the second movement I could not believe how beautiful it was and I played it again to be sure I had heard it right.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) is thought to have made his initial sketches for the work in 1796, when he was 26. At this time he was living in Vienna, where he had established a reputation as a virtuoso pianist in the salons of the nobility. He was also starting to compose, and his first public performance of one of his own works was in March 1795. It was either his first or second piano concerto but no one is sure which one. By 1800 he was becoming regarded as one of the leading young composers in the generation following Haydn and Mozart. His music was much in demand from patrons and publishers and he was making a decent living. However he was showing the first symptoms of the deafness which would eventually become profound, and this was a source of deep distress to him.
During 1802 he spent April to October in the small Austrian town of Heiligenstadt, not far from Vienna, in the (vain) hope of a rest cure. There he wrote his Heiligenstadt Testament, a letter to his brothers recording his thoughts of suicide and his resolve to continue living for his art.
Accounts differ but the current view is that the bulk of the third concerto was composed in the autumn of 1802, at this time of intense emotional turmoil. It was premiered on April 5, 1803, at the Theater an der Wien, where he had been appointed composer in residence. Beethoven was the soloist.
According to Beethoven’s pupil Ferdinand Ries, the only rehearsal for the concert, on the day of the performance, was a marathon affair running non-stop from 8am until 2.30pm, and it was a shambles. The orchestra was second-string, the city’s best players having been hired by a competing presenter for a performance of Haydn’s The Creation the same evening. ‘[It] was frightful,’ Ries recalled. ‘At half past two everyone was exhausted and dissatisfied. Prince Karl Lichnowsky [one of Beethoven’s patrons], who was at the rehearsal from its beginning, sent out for large baskets of buttered bread, cold meats, and wine. He invited all the musicians to help themselves, and a collegial atmosphere was restored.’
The event started at 6pm, at which time the piano score of the concerto had not been finished. Another Beethoven pupil, Ignaz von Seyfried, considered himself fortunate to have been chosen by Beethoven as his page-turner. He reported later: ‘I saw empty pages with here and there what looked like Egyptian hieroglyphs, unintelligible to me, scribbled to serve as clues for him. He played most of his part from memory, since, obviously, he had put so little on paper. So, whenever he reached the end of some invisible passage, he gave me a surreptitious nod and I turned the page. My anxiety not to miss such a nod amused him greatly and the recollection of it at our convivial dinner after the concert sent him into gales of laughter.’
On the same bill were the first performances of Beethoven’s Second Symphony and the oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives, as well as a reprise of the First Symphony, first heard a year earlier. What a glorious occasion that must have been! You have to hope the seats were comfortable.
Critical response to the concerto at its first performance ranged from lukewarm to cold; in fact, the only thing that really pleased the audience, it seems, was the familiar First Symphony. The critic for the Zeitung für die elegante Welt (the Newspaper for the Elegant World) felt the Second had too much ‘striving for the new and surprising’. Beethoven’s playing in the concerto was apparently not up to his best standards – not surprising after the strenuous rehearsal. However the concerto quickly established itself in the public favour. When Ferdinand Ries gave the second performance, the respected critic for the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitschrift (General Music Magazine) declared it to be ‘indisputably one of Beethoven’s most beautiful compositions’.
I have chosen a performance recorded only a few weeks ago with Daniel Barenboim as the soloist.