Of all the works that Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) wrote, his five piano concertos are almost certainly the most popular with audiences.
Here in Toronto, a Beethoven piano concerto featuring a great soloist partnered with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra is usually sold out weeks before the performance. And so they should because they are among the most beautiful piano concertos ever written.
Beethoven wrote them between 1795 and 1809. Numbered from 1 to 5, in fact what is known as Piano Concerto No. 2 in B Flat, Op. 19 was the first one he wrote. He started sketching it in 1787 but it underwent several revisions before he was satisfied enough to publish it in 1801. It became “No. 2” because it was the second one to be published/premiered (in the same year), permanently switching places with the second one in chronological identity.
Like Symphonies No. 1 & 2, Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major, Op. 15 and Piano Concerto No. 2 in B Flat Major, Op. 19 were written in the classical style.
Just as his third symphony was a major advance on his first two of that form, Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 37 marked a major shift in style and “weight”. Even a non-musician listener like me immediately notes the change. It is said that Beethoven held on to it for quite a while. In his words, Beethoven said: “Musical policy necessitates keeping the best concertos to oneself for a while.”
Beethoven biographers tell us that audiences and critics did not immediately take to Piano Concerto No. 3 when it premiered in 1803. Such was the departure from convention that Beethoven was a true revolutionary, not just in politics but in music. Today, it ranks among the most popular piano concertos.
Piano Concerto No.4 in G Major, Op. 58, premiered in 1808 by Beethoven himself, marked yet another change. It starts with hushed piano rather than the orchestral openings that had hitherto heralded the entry of the piano soloists in a concerto. It is one of the grandest pieces of music in the Canon, vying with Piano Concerto No. 5 in E Flat, Op. 73 “Emperor” for top slot in public popularity. The beauty of the slow movement of the No. 4 is almost unbearable!!
Piano Concerto No. 5 in E Flat, Op. 73 “Emperor” was Beethoven’s final piano concerto, premiered in 1811 when he was already significantly deaf. Like its immediate older sibling, it opens with the piano, except that this time the loud cascading chords grab the listener’s attention. Over the years I have come to associate those powerful chords with the concerto’s nickname “Emperor,” as though that was what the composer intended. In fact Beethoven was not the author of this nickname. According to Beethoven scholars, there are two stories behind the nickname.
The first story has it that during its Vienna premiere in 1812, a French army officer in the audience declared, “C’est l’empereur de concerti!” (“This is the emperor of concerti!”). Almost certainly apocryphal. The more likely story, we are told, is that Beethoven’s London publisher, Johann Baptist Cramer, baptized it as such.
Two hundred years after they were composed, Beethoven’s five piano concertos retain a place of honour as they continue to dominate the field, and for good reason. The slow movements alone guarantee these concertos long tenure on the peak of the mountain of numerous beautiful piano concertos that were written before and after them.
There are simply too many excellent performances to make a recommendation. Connoisseurs of Beethoven will already have their favourite performances. I would love to discover what others listen to and like. One who is new to these great works, or one who would like all five would do well to get a complete set by any of the following:
- Alfred Brendel (piano) with the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Sir Simon Rattle Phillips).
- Evgeny Kissin (p) with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Colin Davis (EMI)
- Vladmir Ashkenazy (piano) with Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Georg Solti (Decca).
Whereas I have not listened to the following, I have heard /read rave reviews about them:
- Richard Goode (piano) with the Budapest Festival Orchestra conducted by Ivan Fischer (Nonesuch).
- Stephen Kovacevich (piano) with the BBC Symphony Orchestra & London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Colin Davis.
For recordings of individual concertos, here are some of my personal and highly subjective recommendations from my library:
Concerto No. 1& 2 Maurizio Pollini (p) with Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Claudio Abbado (DG)
Concerto No. 3 & 4 Murray Perahia (p) with Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Bernard Haitink (Sony)
Concerto No. 5 – Sir Clifford Curzon (p) with Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Hans Knappertsbusch (Decca)