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ClassicsOnline Home » BEETHOVEN, L. van: Piano Concertos, Vol. 3 (Biret) - No. 5, "Emperor" / Choral Fantasy (Biret Beethoven Edition, Vol. 11)
“Biret grasps the size of Beethoven’s style. The polyphony is laid out in a relaxed way with little indulgence in point making. She keeps the big line and yet is thankfully sparing in her use of fortissimos. The piano tone is sumptuous. Biret’s gentle and almost sensuous sonorities are really captivating. One is reminded that her mentor has been Wilhelm Kempff.” GRAMOPHONE
“Idil Biret gives an impressive performance. A supreme mastery of tempi, sonorities, polyphony and technique permits Biret—a disciple of Alfred Cortot—to embrace all the moods of Beethoven and gives her playing a symphonic depth rarely heard until now.” LE NOUVEL OBSERVATEUR
“Idil Biret has recently recorded Liszt’s transcriptions of Beethoven’s nine Symphonies for EMI. Her superbly authentic performance of the 5th Symphony, heard at her Herkülessaal recital in Munich, received a thunderous reception.” MÜNCHNER MERKUR
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)
Piano Concertos, Volume 3
No. 5 in E flat major, Op. 73 (Emperor)
Fantasia for Piano, Chorus and Orchestra in C minor, Op. 80
Thayer informs us that Beethoven’s compositions of 1809 were headed by Concerto No. 5 for Pianoforte and Orchestra in E flat major, Op.73, and that “the first sketches for the Concerto dedicated to Archduke Rudolph are to be found in the so-called Grasnick sketchbook after the sketches for the Choral Fantasia, as it was performed for the first time on 22 December 1808…Like the later-composed pianoforte introduction to the Fantasia, these sketches belong to the early part of the year 1809…The work was finished by the end of the year; the autograph in the Berlin State Library has the inscription ‘Klavier Conzert 1809. von LvBthwn’”. This is confirmed by one, Gustav Nottebohm, who describes Beethoven’s studies with Haydn, counterpoint with Albrechtsberger and sketchbooks generally. The majority of the Concerto’s sketches are in the Meinert sketchbook, while some 27 sheets remain in the Berlin Library. Apparently Beethoven first mentioned it to Breitkopf and Härtel on 4 February 1810, but the work’s printing had to wait until February 1811. In between, at the close of 1810, Johann Schneider first performed the work in public. The press reported that the numerous audience went into ‘a state of enthusiasm that it could hardly content itself with the ordinary expressions of recognition and enjoyment’.
The subsequent revisions to the Concerto and Choral Fantasia, as well as the Piano Sonata Op. 81a, various songs and the oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives, were accompanied by Beethoven’s apologies for ‘two weeks again, with his ‘tormenting headache’, but shortly afterwards he wrote: ‘Your Imperial Highness! Since despite all my exertions I could find no copyist who would work at my house, I am sending you my manuscript’…and imploring him to ‘Keep me graciously in your memory. Times will come when I shall show you two and threefold that I am worthy of it’. Among Beethoven’s benefactors was Prince von Klinsky who, with the aid of mediators praising the composer, was requested to make good notes of redemption, the payment of arrears and future sums in full. This was in the year 1812, and we have the sage comments of the popular author Sir Walter Scott: ‘It is seldom that the same circle of personages, who have surrounded an individual at his first outset in life, continue to have an interest in his career till his fate comes to a crisis…’ Beethoven’s older retinue of friends remained constant in their affections, but they were less useful to him because he was not performing as a pianist on the circuit of the rich upper classes. December 1808 marked the composer-pianist’s nearly thirty years of concert appearances that had started in Cologne as a prodigy.
According to how we view Beethoven’s works for keyboard and orchestra individually, the ‘Emperor’ Concerto, dedicated to the man who became his pupil and protector, marks a departure from the composer’s classical period into the new exciting sound vista of the Romantic era. The first and third movements personify the dramatic clashes between solo piano and orchestra, while the calm central Adagio has the orchestral part carry the melody while the pianist comments and decorates, conserving his energies for the boisterous Grand Finale. Orchestral tuttis mark the pianist’s cadenza like flourishes, and thereafter, for a period of four or five minutes, the orchestral players strut forth in military style, albeit with a brief minor episode with turns and pizzicati against an ominous and sinister augmentation lower down the stave. The atmosphere keenly states a predominant mastery in taking a fairly obvious theme and turning it all ways. Wind solos bring back the pianist, who indulges in pretty much the same exercise, albeit pirouetting the theme in straightforward fashion, on its head, segmenting and augmenting it in turn. During delightful asides from solo bassoon and flute, we settle briefly in C minor with an interweaving theme from the pianist against plucked strings that slides suddenly back into the tonic. For Beethoven, this is the sign for some devil-may-care fun-making with the pianist taking centre stage. Flaunting, subdividing and re-presenting the framework of his material, he presents a grand exposition of changing major-minor sequences that literally surround his main subject. Then he does the unexpected. By mirroring and slightly slowing the pace, he builds his resources up again, carefully. Gradually, with winds interjecting theme fragments against an arpeggio piano backwash, he creates an upward thrust of continuity that plunges back to the work’s opening in heroic style. One senses the composer’s allegiances to his other E flat major masterwork, the ‘Eroica’ Symphony. But here, celebratory plaudits are directed to himself and his choice of keyboard interpreter; certainly not to any political assassin. The remainder of the movement, including the brief, uplifting cadenza (not quite at the end of proceedings) confirm the correctness of his viewpoint. The sublime Adagio un poco mosso slow movement with its bestilled atmosphere of wafting breezes is the perfect example of how a composer, by slowing and softening his forces, can produce the opposite effect to his previous movement. Series of upward piano trills awaken our attention to the droplet passages that precede them, and the long sustained descent and modulation towards the start of the Rondo Allegro Finale is indeed masterly. Beethoven at his most assertive—I have nothing but praise for the opening phrase linked to its trilling answering call, but whether commentators have successfully summed up the sheer variations of mood, key contrasting, defined moments or that sheer devilry that causes the listener to jump out of his seat in sheer ecstasy, I very much doubt. It is unique and quite unparalleled. The final linked cadenza at the close brings jubilation from all concerned.
For an obvious example of Beethoven’s free variation format we turn to the Choral Fantasia, Op.80. To describe it in Thayer’s words it is a Fantasia for the Pianoforte which ends with the gradual entrance of the entire orchestra and the introduction of choruses as a finale. The composer worked considerably on it to make it fit for performance, evidence the first 75 pages in the Grasnick sketchbook. Interestingly, Nottebohm tells us that there was no hint of a pianoforte introduction that Beethoven improvised at the first 1808 performance; he preferred beginning with a string quartet from select orchestral players. Work commenced before a text was selected, and the composer favoured paving the way by introducing voices by words calling the attention of newcomers from the harmonious party—Nottebohm suspecting that Treitschke wrote them according to the composer’s edict. At the first performance, the introductory piano fantasia took the place of Beethoven’s improvisation in accordance to the published score. The dedication is to Maximilian Joseph, King of Bavaria.
Often compared to the Ninth Symphony, the Choral Fantasia was chosen to be the final item to follow the Fifth Symphony in the same key. The structure is: Adagio (C minor for piano solo), Finale—Allegro (the reason for ‘finale’ is not clear), Meno allegro (C minor), Adagio, ma non troppo (A major), Marcia, assai vivace (F major, alla breve), Allegro (C minor), Allegretto, ma non troppo; Presto (Coda). The text has been attributed to the poet Christoph Kuffner.
The Choral Fantasia starts with a solo piano introduction, leading to a series of free and then strict variations. Repeated patterings in the piano part come between stern C minor chords; gradually the emphasis recedes but returns again. Pizzicato strings, then wind instruments appear against a recitative-like subject from the pianist. French horns, solo piano and horns sing out the main theme. Skipping solo flute and oboes echo in repetition. Clarinets intervene in harmony, then strings, with sparer scoring, followed by the full orchestra. The pianist becomes more assertive. Following piano trills, the orchestra answers in march-style. There is a C minor episode with the pianist changing keys. Concerted divided voices sing out the main subject, then the full choir is heard, leading to a Presto coda.
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BEETHOVEN, L. van: Piano Concertos, Vol. 3 (Biret)...