Concerto No. 4

in G Major for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 58, Ludwig Van Beethoven

Beethoven’s early fame derived not only from his compositions but his brilliance as a pianist. Arriving in Vienna at age 22, he aggressively displaced pianists Joseph Geklinek and Daniel Steibelt who had been the darlings of Vienna’s musical society. Clearly displaced, Geklinek remarked, “Ah, Beethoven is no man, he is the devil.  He will play me and all of us to death!” The composer even engaged in a piano duel with Steibelt to determine who was the better improviser, and he won hands down by slyly using one of Steibelt’s own tunes as the subject for his improvisations. Afterwards, Steibelt left Vienna, never to return.

The five piano concerti were written not only as important vehicles for Beethoven’s musical thought and innovation but also as vehicles for his own virtuosity. As a set, they contain some of Beethoven’s most brilliant, heroic and exquisite writing. Sadly, he was only able to premiere the first four due to his failing health.

Throughout his life, the piano keyboard was always home base for the composer­­—he composed at this keyboard and tested ideas herein. After ordering a Broadwood, six octave piano, he wrote the maker on February 3, 1818, “I shall regard this as an altar upon which I will place the choicest offerings of my mind to the divine Apollo.” Admiring Beethoven as a pianist, the manufacturer presented the instrument to the composer as a gift. Those who are interested in “Beethoven the Pianist” (and the same title) is a book by Tilman Skowroneck published in 2010.

The Fourth Piano Concerto responded to innovations in piano development. At this time, three strings were provided for each note, and a new pedal system allowing a shift between one, two, or three strings, introduced new coloristic options. And the instrument had three additional high notes, which are used in this concerto. Yet despite these innovations, this concerto omits bravura keyboard display and opts for a radiant beauty. In a letter to his friend, pupil, composer, and secretary, Ferdinand Ries on July 16, 1823, Beethoven explained, “Candidly I am not a friend of allegri di bravura since they do nothing but promote mechanism.”  One of his students, Countess Babette von Keglevics, recalled, “He was extraordinarily patient, but if I lacked expression, he became very angry.” Expressive playing lies at the heart of the Fourth Piano Concerto, and its gentle triumph broke new ground for the concerto concept.  Far from the crashing keyboard attacks for which Beethoven was well known, this concerto demands savoir-faire, discipline, subtlety, control, exquisite legato playing and finesse. The concerto’s uniqueness perhaps is responsible for its lack of popular traction for many years. It was performed only twice in Beethoven’s lifetime, and not until Mendelssohn revived it in 1836 did it begin to receive justified acclaim. Hence George Grove called it “Beethoven’s Cinderella.”

His Fourth Piano Concerto debuted in 1807 at the palace of Beethoven’s patron, Prince Lobkowitz. Its public debut occurred in a remarkable five hour concert on December 22, 1808, which also premiered the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, Mass in C and the Choral Fantasy.

Beethoven opens the work with a soloist, eschewing the conventional orchestral introduction. Very gently, the pianist lifts the curtain by playing the first theme. Then, the soloist drops away and the orchestra begins by adding to the first subject and ushering in a second melody in a minor key. A smaller third idea is also generated before the pianist reappears. The main topic of this movement concerns the soloist’s melody. A development section focuses almost exclusively on its potential. Beethoven wrote four cadenzas for his concerto, and a pianist has a broad selection for his traditional moment of glory.  However, in this case, all are subdued affairs with gentle spirit. After the cadenza, the movement concludes with a short coda.

The second movement, an andante in E minor continues the discourse between soloist and orchestra. A rather stern orchestral part vies with the lyrical piano which comments with unsurpassed tenderness, both in dialogue and a ravishing monologue. David Ewen writes, “There is perhaps nothing in all concerto literature to match the kind of philosophic dialogue that takes place for some seventy measures.”  This is Beethoven at his most vulnerable, most tender and most magical.

An aggressive third movement begins without pause from the second. Strings burst with a flourish, declaiming an energetic tune. The soloist quickly joins in the merrymaking with instant rapport. Trumpets and drums add accent and color. A lyrical second theme emerges, but the consistent mood is propulsive. A long coda brings the concerto to a close. With this work, Beethoven revealed that a concerto does not have to be bombastic in order to leave us spellbound.

© Marianne Williams Tobias, Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, 2016.

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