The past season in Boston Symphony had the Piano Concerto No.2 in B-flat major; it is not a Beethoven's work most frequently performed and so it was awaited with special anticipation. The very first sounds made us wonder if we were at the Beethoven's - so Mozartian it seemed. As the music progressed, the composer proved that it was he, although overall this music is not totally revolutionary, it only contains a few sparks that will ignite the famous future outburst. However the concerto was so delightful that it became a necessity to study it further and to listen to different interpretations.
In this review I will concentrate on this No. 2 concerto (not No.3 which is more popular), and among a few great pianists I've chosen Martha Argerich's performance. I loved her interpretation when first listening to it from the CD box, and then the booklet confirmed my feelings - Beethoven's Concerto No.2 has long been part of her repertoire which showed - she played it as no one. Together with Claudio Abbado they had truly created an unforgettable version of the work, and I return to this recording over and over. Some history will make it shine even brighter.
The Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat--written first but published second, as Opus 19-- started its life in Bonn around 1790, but it did not reach its final form until Beethoven substituted a new rondo for the original finale in 1798. Beethoven may have played the B-fiat concerto in March or December of 1790 in Vienna, while it is known that he played the B-fiat concerto in Prague in 1798. Some further, slight revisions followed before the concerto was published in 1801.
Beethoven's first two piano concertos are exercises in the style of their day, suggesting that he was inclined to view the genre in terms more practical than ambitious. As with most soloists of the time, these were vehicles for his virtuoso career. In the years around the turn of the nineteenth century, Beethoven was very much a composer/pianist. He recalled that in his teens in Bonn he practiced "prodigiously."
When he arrived in Vienna in 1792, at age twenty-two, he was one of the finest pianists alive. His rise as a virtuoso was meteoric. Meanwhile, performing amounted to more than half his income. While he never had trouble selling his music, the pay for publication was skimpy, and there were no royalties. As a virtuoso, on the other hand, he could sometimes make a good part of a year's living in one sitting. When around 1802 he realized that he was going deaf and there was nothing to be done about it, part of his anguish was the imminent end to his playing career, which meant a great deal to him and also provided his readiest source of cash.
Beyond their practical function as vehicles for himself, in his first two concertos Beethoven was not yet ready to challenge Mozart's supremacy. Nearly everything he wrote in his younger years, and much after that, was based on models of the past. Highly versed in the repertoire, he looked for the best work in each genre and used it as a source of ideas and instruction. For string quartets and symphonies, that meant Haydn above all. When it came to concertos, the main model was Mozart. Also vital in his mind were the French violin concertos of G.B. Viotti. When it came to keyboard style and figuration, meanwhile, he studied the pioneering sonatas of Muzio Clementi.
The opening movement of the B-flat is so Mozartian that one could imagine that it is the older master. For the main theme he juxtaposed brisk fanfares with lyrical phrases. As in Mozart, after an extended orchestral tutti the soloist first enters with a quasi-new idea derived from earlier material; he soon slips into virtuosic roulades. The soloist will turn out to emphasize the lyrical aspect of the material, providing some quite lovely stretches. All of this shows a young composer/pianist as more at home with the keyboard than the orchestra.
Martha Argerich played this concerto with that spirit of youthfulness. I loved her fast tempi, very energetic, with Claudio Abbado deriving a robust yet sensitive partnership from the orchestra. In general, Italians seems to prefer faster playing, perhaps a tradition from Toscanini times, and it is not always complimentary of a work. But in the case of this concerto it seemed the most appropriate; the rapid tempo brought that typical Beethoven's playfulness that is so characteristic of his earlier works. I'd say in this aspect Argerich and Abbado made a unique interpretation.
The amazement awaits the listener at the cadenza in the first movement which puts a halt to any doubts about the authorship of this music. The cadenza is by Beethoven, and at the eleventh minute one can clearly hear the fragments of Hammerklavier sonata (Piano Sonata No. 29 in B flat major, Op. 106), written roughly 30 years later! The Hammerklavier theme continues for about a minute. It is always stunning to recognize in an early work the first signs of strength of the future mature genius.
Recordings of other pianists who play this cadenza also showcase these unmistakable Hammerklavier sounds, but I chose Argerich interpretation as one of the most moving and to my taste, authentic - meaning that Beethoven could have played it like she does.
While the first movement never entirely escapes Beethoven's Bonn apprenticeship, the next two movements sound more mature, more Viennese. Even here in one of the more cautious of his early opuses Beethoven tended to wide-ranging tonal peregrinations. The Adagio, in E-flat major, sounds Mozartian in conception but more nearly Beethovenian in tone, with an elegantly nocturnal atmosphere. It echoes the preciousness of the 18th- century ga/ant mood--also the lofty choruses of Mozart's Magic Flute (whose home key is E-flat major). As in Mozart slow movements, the theme is beautifully ornamented by the soloist; but the keys include a strikingly dark B-flat minor, and the pianism is fresh and brilliant.
Traditionally, concerto finales were lively and witty sonata-rondos--a convention Beethoven conformed to in all his concertos. (The most common sonata-rondo formal outline is ABACABA, with the A and B functioning like the first and second themes of a sonata, the C section often serving as development section.) For this finale Beethoven sketched a dancing 6/8 main theme that did not take wing until he moved its pickup note over to the downbeat, making a droll hopping effect. Here he plays the sort of joking game with rhythm and meter that Haydn was given to, but in a robust tone of his own. The C section jumps into a Turkish or gypsy-flavored minor. The soloist ends the story with a blaze of double trills in the right hand, a specialty of Beethoven the young virtuoso. In any case, when he published this concerto as Opus 19, Beethoven was already far beyond it as a composer: the blazing, revolutionary Pathétique piano sonata is Opus 13. Martha Argerich plays the sonata with the same mastery as this concerto, but it is another story...
This recording is highly recommended.