Beethoven: Piano Concerto No.4

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No.4 in G major, op.58

1. Allegro moderato
2. Andante con moto
3. Rondo. Vivace

An audience in the early nineteenth century needed stamina; the concert at which Beethoven first presented his fourth piano concerto to the public in 1808 also included the premieres of his fifth and sixth symphonies, his Choral Fantasia, and parts of his Mass in C major. This gargantuan concert was the fruit of an astonishingly productive few years in Beethoven's life: after his unhappy experiences writing and staging his only opera Fidelio he threw himself back into the creation of instrumental music, and during 1806 produced one major work almost per month. The Fourth Piano Concerto was the first of this slew of pieces to be written, although sketches for it exist from several years previously - it was not uncommon for Beethoven to mull over ideas for many years before he finally committed them to a final form. This performance featured the composer himself at the piano, an occasion which proved to be his last appearance as a concerto soloist, although he continued to play the piano in public until 1814, when his deafness finally forced him to abandon performing altogether.

Although one of Mozart's concertos is occasionally mentioned, there really is no precedent for the opening of this concerto, in which the piano begins immediately, without any orchestral tutti to precede. This remarkable gesture sets the tone for a work which continually flouts the conventions of how a concerto was supposed to work at the start of the nineteenth century. Although a distant echo of the Fifth Symphony can be heard in the main theme, the concerto achieves its originality without the barnstorming heroics of that work and the others that are contemporaneous to it, but cloaks it in a warmth and vulnerability which is perhaps the closest Beethoven ever came to emulating Mozart's sublime humanity.

Liszt is only the most prominent musician who has drawn attention to the close similarities between the slow movement of the concerto and the scene between Orpheus and the Furies in Gluck's opera Orfeo ed Euridice. Beethoven was not averse to including hidden programmatic elements in his music, but no knowledge of Greek myth is necessary to appreciate the archetypal concept of the movement, as the fierce, stark string declamations are gradually subdued by the piano's gentle pleading.

Out of this profound stillness emerges a kittenish theme, which begins in the "wrong" key of C before finding its way to the home key of G major. The mood is one of unbuttoned playfulness, and the trumpets and drums that appear transcend their military connotations to provide a sunny and vivacious conclusion to what is quite simply one of the very finest concertos by Beethoven or anyone else.

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