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Length: c. 36 minutes
Orchestration: flute, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 trumpets, 2 horns, timpani, strings, and solo piano
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: August 19, 1948, Eugene Ormandy conducting, with pianist Saralee Konigsberg
In his later correspondence, Beethoven disingenuously dismisses the present Concerto (published as No. 1, but actually the second to be written), if not as juvenilia, then still as a prelude of sorts to his “mature” Concerto in C minor, Op. 37. Beethoven, for better or worse, regarded it as good business practice to praise his latest works – or those yet to be written – at the expense of earlier creations.
He considered the C-major Concerto an important statement at the time of its creation in 1798, however, as indicated by the fact that he wrote three cadenzas for the first movement alone, each an impressive achievement. It was, then, a vehicle for the 28-year-old superpianist, already a lion of Vienna’s musical salons as a performer and numbered among the most promising composers on the scene as well.
The presumed first public performance of Op. 15 was given by Beethoven in Prague at the end of 1798. In the audience was another young composer-pianist, Václav Tomás?ek, who wrote of the event: “Beethoven, that giant among players, had come to Prague. At a crowded concert in the Seminary Hall he played his Concerto in C, the Adagio and Rondo grazioso from his Sonata in A [Op. 2, No. 2] and extemporized on a theme from Mozart’s Clemenza di Tito... His grand style of playing, and especially his bold improvisation, had an extraordinary effect upon me. I felt so shaken that for several days I could not bring myself to touch the piano.”
Beethoven’s brilliance as a pianist still overshadowed his talents as a composer, but this worked in his favor: he could play difficult music of his own and have listeners willingly accept it, not necessarily for its intrinsic worth, but for the manner in which it was executed. Fortunately, by the time Beethoven’s playing days were over, many of his most demanding compositions had found responsive audiences as well.
That listeners initially responded more to the messenger than to the message is borne out by Tomás?ek’s observations on the two additional appearances Beethoven made during that same Prague visit: “This time I was able to listen with greater composure. I again admired his brilliant and powerful playing, but his frequent, daring deviations from one theme to another, whereby the organic connection, the gradual development of ideas, was put aside, did not escape me. Evils of this nature, springing from too exuberant a fancy, often mar his greatest compositions. It is not seldom that the unbiased listener is rudely awakened from his transport. The singular and original seems to be his chief aim in composition...”
Some of these “evils” are the very qualities that would be regarded as central to the composer’s greatness by later, worshipful generations. But Tomás?ek cherished the Classical proprieties, while Beethoven, with his “daring deviations,” “exuberant fancy,” his “singularity” and “originality,” was carving out new musical worlds.
K. 503, the last of Mozart’s concertos in the key of C, likely served as Beethoven’s model – most obviously in the lengthy and formal tutti with which both works begin. It is in the poignant second movement that the original voice of Beethoven asserts itself, by way of a principal theme that manages to combine breadth with metrical irregularity, and with decorations as expressive as the theme itself. With the boisterous rondo finale we seem at times to be not only in a new world but in a new century, what with the jazzily syncopated bass of the surprising, minor-key third theme of this prodigiously varied music.
– Herbert Glass