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Beethoven’s five piano concertos trace a path from Classicism to Romanticism and are masterpieces of a genre he revolutionised. The first three show him as the young lion of Vienna, the fourth as the mature genius seeking to be worthy of his own gifts (of which he was well aware); and in No. 5 he let the scale of his imagination shine out, while someone else did the heavy lifting of actually playing the piano. Scroll down to explore our guide to Beethoven’s piano concertos featuring Krystian Zimerman and Sir Simon Rattle’s landmark recording with the London Symphony Orchestra to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth.
Beethoven’s five (or so) piano concertos
Beethoven’s five piano concertos are all in three movements. Here their similarities end. The wonderful thing about Beethoven – OK, one of many wonderful things – is that he never repeats himself.
The earliest of Beethoven’s piano concertos that we generally hear, No. 2, was first drafted in the late 1780s and the last completed in 1809-10, by which time the world of Beethoven’s youth was being swept away by the Napoleonic wars. As his times changed, so did his musical approach. The first three show him as the young lion of Vienna, the fourth as the mature genius seeking to be worthy of his own gifts (of which he was well aware); and in No. 5 he let the scale of his imagination shine out, while someone else did the heavy lifting of actually playing the piano.
Technically, neither No. 1 nor No. 2 was really the first: Beethoven had written another piano concerto (Wo04) aged 14. If some of the dates around the big concertos seem a little bit vague, that is because Beethoven usually wrote slowly and often worked on several different pieces at the same time. Occasionally, though, he scribbled so fast that the ink scarcely had time to dry – and later he would rewrite.
Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1
The C major concerto, the official No. 1, was a case in point. Beethoven premiered it in 1795 in his first public concert in Vienna, having written the finale only two days earlier. His friend Franz Wegeler recalled him racing against the clock to finish it, handing over the sheets of manuscript page by fresh page to four copyists waiting outside. Nevertheless, he then revised it extensively; it was not finalised for another five years.
Unquenchable energy, wit and good humour bounce out of this music. Its outer two movements are unmistakable for their vivacity; the first, moreover, presents the soloist with a choice of three cadenzas by the composer, the initial one modest in scale, the second more substantial and the third – written much later – so long and demanding that some pianists avoid it for fear of overbalancing the whole piece. The ‘Largo’ is the longest of any in Beethoven’s concertos, which collectively offer some of his most sublime slow movements, seeming to make time stand still.
Of No. 2 in B flat major, Beethoven wrote self-deprecatingly to his publisher: “This concerto I only value at 10 ducats… I do not give it out as one of my best.” Yet if he hadn’t written any more, we would still love him for this work. Genial, warm, sometimes ridiculously funny – try those off-beat loping rhythms in the finale
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Playing Piano Because Murder Is Wrong Poster
the B flat piano concerto seems to give us a glimpse of the young Beethoven who had dreamed of studying with Mozart (a longing thwarted by Beethoven’s mother’s death and his family issues thereafter). Beethoven uses the same concerto structure as Mozart: an opening allegro in processional mode, a lyrical slow movement and a dancelike conclusion. Yet he pushes everything several steps further. He’s the ultimate musical disruptor. There’s nothing Mozartian about the idiosyncratic, folksy third movement, or the fervent intensity of the exquisite central ‘Adagio’.