Full program notes:
Beethoven Marathon: The young lion—and an older lion
Beethoven arrived in Vienna in November 1792, not quite 22 years old and completely unknown. Though he wanted to be a composer, the young Beethoven established himself first as a pianist in his adopted city. The Viennese, used to a gentler keyboard style, were amazed by the power and expressiveness of Beethoven’s playing, and he made his early reputation in Vienna for his ability to improvise, as one observer noted:
“He knew how to produce such an effect upon every hearer that frequently not an eye remained dry, while many would break into loud sobs....After ending an improvisation of this kind he would burst into loud laughter and banter his hearers on the emotion he had caused in them. ‘You are fools!’ he would say...‘Who can live among such spoiled children!’ he would cry.”
Beethoven may have been an arrogantly confident pianist, but as a composer he was much less sure of himself, particularly with the specter of Mozart’s 27 piano concertos behind him. Mozart had raised the piano concerto from a mere entertainment vehicle to the sophisticated and expressive form in which he composed some of his greatest music, and Beethoven recognized that any concerto he wrote would have to meet that standard. Once, after hearing an outdoor performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in C minor, Beethoven turned to his friend Johann Baptist Cramer and despaired: “Cramer! Cramer! We shall never be able to do anything like that!” Not surprisingly, the influence of Mozart’s piano concertos can be felt very firmly in Beethoven’s first two, which he worked on simultaneously in the years after his arrival in Mozart’s hometown.
Ludwig van Beethoven
Born: December 16, 1770, Bonn, Germany
Died: March 26, 1827, Vienna, Austria
Concerto No. 1 in C major for Piano and Orchestra, Opus 15
The First Piano Concerto’s opening movement, marked Allegro con brio, begins very quietly with the simplest of figures; yet seconds later this very figure thunders to life with all the power one expects from Beethoven. Violins sing the flowing second subject, and then the piano enters with entirely new material. The writing for piano here is graceful and accomplished, but—as in Mozart’s concertos—not particularly virtuosic: the emphasis is on musical values as an end in themselves rather than on virtuosic display.
Solo piano opens the Largo with that movement’s main idea, melodic and extremely ornate; the solo clarinet assumes an important role in this movement with a part so expressive that at moments the music is reminiscent of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto. Solo piano again opens the concluding Allegro scherzando, and its lively rondo tune is quickly answered by the boisterous orchestra. Along the way, Beethoven offers the soloist two brief cadenzas.
Instrumentation: solo piano with orchestra comprising flute, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani and strings
“Nature would burst should she attempt to produce nothing save Beethovens.”
– Robert Schumann
Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major for Piano and Orchestra, Opus 19
Much has been made of the fact that Beethoven later described his second effort in this form as “a concerto for piano, which I do not consider one of my best.” That remark was probably made as a sales pitch to point out how much better his subsequent concertos were—in fact, the Second Piano Concerto remained important to the composer.
The substantial orchestral introduction of the Allegro con brio leads to the entrance of the pianist and the development of two themes: the sprightly, dotted opening figure and a more lyric second idea for strings. Beethoven may have disparaged this concerto, but he cared enough about it to come back to it in 1809 and write a cadenza for the first movement. That cadenza offers a fugato on the concerto’s opening theme that takes the soloist to the extremes of the keyboard.
In the lyric Adagio, the musical interest remains almost exclusively in the piano. After its brief introduction, the orchestra provides discreet accompaniment. The Rondo finale is full of energy and syncopated accents. Beethoven nicely unifies this movement by keeping its contrasting episodes very much in the manner of the rondo tune itself, and this sparkling music dances home with a gracefulness that has marked the entire concerto.
Instrumentation: solo piano with orchestra comprising flute, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 horns and strings
Symphony No. 7 in A major, Opus 92
If Beethoven’s first two piano concertos found him struggling to establish himself, his Seventh Symphony, composed nearly twenty years later, finds him at the crest of what has been called his “Heroic Style.” The works that crystallized that style—the Eroica and the Fifth Symphony—had unleashed a level of violence and darkness previously unknown in music. In the fall of 1811, Beethoven began a new symphony, his Seventh, and it differs sharply from those two famous predecessors. Gone now is the sense of cataclysmic struggle and hard-won victory that had driven those earlier symphonies. Instead, this music is infused from its first moment with a feeling of pure celebration.
Much has been made of Beethoven’s ability to transform small bits of theme into massive symphonic structures, but in the Seventh he begins not so much with theme as with rhythm: he builds the entire symphony from what are almost scraps of rhythm, tiny figures that can seem unpromising. Gradually he unleashes the energy locked up in these small figures and from them builds one of the mightiest symphonies ever written.
poco sostenuto – vivace. The first movement opens with a slow introduction so long that it almost becomes a separate movement of its own. Tremendous chords punctuate the slow beginning, which gives way to a poised duet for oboes. The real effect of this long Poco sostenuto, however, is to coil the energy that will be unleashed in the true first movement, marked Vivace. This begins in a most unpromising manner as woodwinds play a simple dotted 6/8 rhythm that Beethoven uses to build the entire first movement, saturating virtually every measure with its pattern and hammering it into our consciousness. A solo flute announces the first theme, a graceful melody using this very same rhythm. At the climax, horns sail majestically to the close as the orchestra thunders out that rhythm one final time.
allegretto. The Allegretto is one of Beethoven’s most famous slow movements. It too is built on a short rhythmic pattern—in this case, long-short-short-long-long—and this pattern repeats here almost as obsessively as the pattern of the first movement. The opening sounds like a series of static chords. The theme itself occurs quietly inside those chords, and Beethoven simply repeats this theme, varying it as it proceeds.
presto; allegro con brio. The Presto scherzo explodes to life on a theme full of grace notes, powerful accents, flying staccatos and timpani explosions. The five abrupt chords that drive this movement to its close set the stage for the Allegro con brio. The opening four-note fanfare will punctuate the entire finale: it shapes the beginning of the main theme, and its stinging accents thrust the music forward as it almost boils over with energy. The ending is virtually Bacchanalian in its wild power—no matter how many times one has heard it, the ending of the Seventh Symphony remains one of the most exciting moments in all of music.
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani and strings
The Minnesota Orchestra and Osmo Vänskä received a Classic FM Gramophone Award nomination in 2009 for the final disc in their Beethoven symphonies cycle—the Second and Seventh Symphonies. Of that album, American Record Guide wrote: “[Vänskä] and his wonderfully committed musicians have staked out a claim not merely for excellence, but for greatness.” Buy this CD »