Length: c. 35 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings, and solo piano
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: January 29, 1926, Walter Henry Rothwell conducting, with pianist Mischa Levitzki
The composer introduced his Concerto in C minor at one of those massive all-Beethoven benefits – with Beethoven as beneficiary – which continues to boggle the mind two centuries after the fact. The date was April 5, 1803, in the Theater an der Wien, the program offering three premieres: the present work, the Second Symphony, and the oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives, as well as a reprise of the First Symphony, first heard a year earlier.
According to Beethoven’s pupil Ferdinand Ries, the rehearsal – the only rehearsal for the entire concert – began at 8 a.m. and was a shambles. The orchestra was the Viennese second-string, the city’s best players having been hired by a competing presenter for a performance of Haydn’s Creation that same evening. “[It] was frightful,” Ries recalled. “At half past two everyone was exhausted and dissatisfied. Prince Karl Lichnowsky [one of Beethoven’s patrons], who was at the rehearsal from its beginning, sent out for large baskets of buttered bread, cold meats, and wine. He invited all the musicians to help themselves, which they did heartily, and a collegial atmosphere was restored.”
The score of the Concerto was not finished by the time of the rehearsal, and indeed it remained a work in progress during the performance, as was noted by another Beethoven pupil, Ignaz von Seyfried, who considered himself fortunate to have been chosen by Beethoven as his page-turner. “I saw empty pages with here and there what looked like Egyptian hieroglyphs, totally unintelligible to me, scribbled to serve as clues for him. He played nearly all of his part from memory, since, obviously, he had put so little on paper. So, whenever he reached the end of some invisible passage, he gave me a surreptitious nod and I turned the page. My anxiety not to miss such a nod amused him greatly and the recollection of it at our convivial dinner after the concert sent him into gales of laughter.”
The Concerto bridges the divide between Beethoven’s two earlier, more clearly Mozart-derived concertos and a more personal style, while simultaneously showing a keen awareness of Mozart’s most Beethoven-like Concerto, K. 491, in the same key of C minor. Both open with the strings softly playing an ascending figure, the winds gradually joining in for the first climax. A thematic fragment – C, E-flat, A-flat – of the theme of the Mozart K. 491 first movement is stated by the low strings in the ninth measure of the Beethoven. Most strikingly, as Charles Rosen has noted, Beethoven’s solo arpeggios in his coda recall portions of Mozart’s in his work. But here, the ferocious C-minor runs with which the piano subsequently enters are purest Beethovenian drama.
The slow movement is an oasis of calm amid the agitated outer movements, with the songful expanse of piano melody accompanied by muted strings, whereafter the piano arpeggios curl around the theme, now stated by strings and woodwinds. There follows a magical passage where piano arpeggios accompany a duet for bassoon and flute.
The rondo finale, in C minor again, has plenty of spirit but also a good deal of tension and the full bag of Beethoven tricks: a second theme, announced by the clarinet, whereupon the principal theme is transformed into a fugue whose conclusion signals the return of C minor. But no, it ascends a semitone to A-flat (an old Haydn trick), and then the piano wanders to E major, which may be far from A-flat but not from the slow movement of this very Concerto.
— Herbert Glass