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Composed: 1795; 1800
Length: c. 30 minutes
Orchestration: flute, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, strings, and solo piano
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: February 27, 1937, Otto Klemperer conducting, with pianist Webster Aitken
Beethoven’s Piano Concerto in B-flat, published as No. 2, was in fact his first in order of composition. He may have started the Concerto as early as 1793, in Bonn, and continued later that year in Vienna while studying with Haydn, who was in the midst of composing his “London” Symphonies. The first performance of the Concerto in B-flat took place at a charity concert in the Burgtheater in March of 1795, one of the 24-year-old composer-pianist’s earliest appearances in public in the imperial capital. Yet he withheld the work from publication until 1801 and didn’t write out the solo in full until late in 1800, in a version that was probably substantially different from what was heard in 1795.
Although Beethoven was by this time already an experienced orchestral composer, the Concerto in B-flat was the first orchestral work he deemed fit for publication: to forestall criticism, he would coyly announce to the publisher that it and its successor, the Piano Concerto [No. 1] in C, were not “among my best works.”
Its manifold charms notwithstanding, the B-flat Concerto makes no pretense at being the kind of “integrated” whole exemplified by the late Mozart concertos, with their suave balance and intertwining of solo and orchestra. Here, in the first movement at any rate, it is the orchestra’s job to present a theme and then allow the piano first to toy with a subordinate theme and then to dance merrily around, expand, and develop the orchestra’s principal theme. The pensive Adagio, with its sweetly flowing melody (that becomes more elaborate as the piano takes over from the orchestra), is beautifully rounded off by a pianissimo restatement of the principal melody. The movement may have been inspired by the Larghetto of Mozart’s last Piano Concerto, K. 595, most noticeably in the brief, undulating exchanges between piano and orchestra before the closing passages. The rondo finale is lightweight and jovial in the extreme, reversing the first-movement procedure, i.e., the piano here states the melodic ideas, which are then elaborated by the orchestra. The syncopated refrain – heard a total of four times – is a foretaste of the Beethoven to come a few months later in his C-major Concerto, Op. 15.
— Herbert Glass