Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Beethoven, Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, op 58

Following up on my post on violin concertos yesterday, I thought I would have a look at this extraordinary concerto. You would think, since I am a guitarist, that my favorite concerto would be the Aranjuez by Rodrigo. Yes, a very fine concerto that I talk about in this post. As I said yesterday, there are a lot of violin concertos I love. But the one concerto that has always stood above all others for me is the Beethoven 4th Piano Concerto. In this piece he seems to me to capture all the grace and fluidity of Mozart, the nobility of Brahms and in addition goes places musically that no-one else seems to have gone.

The third movement is an excellent rondo--true, it shows itself as a Beethoven movement by starting in the wrong key and then correcting itself. But nothing extraordinary. The first movement is extremely fine, presenting a kind of amalgam of the best of Mozart and Brahms. But the opening is something unique to Beethoven, I think. The piano begins, solo, with a phrase of great simplicity answered and extended by the orchestra:

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Quiet, purely harmonic opening in the piano going from I to V. But the answer in the strings is on III which is also the V of E minor. This movement by a third is something that was taken up with great enthusiasm by the Romantic composers. But it is the second movement that is extraordinary. That simple phrase opening the first movement returns, in spirit, if not literally. But first, the strings have a strong statement answered in the piano by this phrase of great beauty:

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One of the extraordinary things about Beethoven is what great simplicity he is capable of. Some of his slow movements are like the simplest of hymns. But there is usually some element that raises them above the ordinary. In this case it is the dialogue of contrast between the biting, forte, staccato strings--all in unison--and the melting harmonies of the solo piano. The Romantics, of course, likened this to Orpheus taming the Furies, but the metaphor is feebler than the musical reality. This is like two utterly opposed forces: the force of barbaric unison and staccato opposed by the angels of harmony. Harmony is destined to triumph, of course, but through beauty, not strength. The score of this movement occupies a mere three pages compared to the thirty-seven pages of the first movement, but the depths of expression are far greater. I can think of no other middle concerto movement that resembles this one.

Now, let's listen to the concerto. Here iKrystian Zimerman, piano with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Leonard Bernstein:

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