In his early years, Ludwig van Beethoven drew attention to himself above all as a pianist particularly proficient at the art of improvisation. As early as 1787, Mozart was impressed by the then 17-year-old Beethoven’s extemporising, and eleven years later the Vienna Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung wrote that Beethoven “showed himself to fullest advantage in the free fantasia. The ease as well as the cohesiveness of the succession of ideas that he produces on the spot from each prescribed theme is truly quite extraordinary.” That the composer’s keyboard technique was, however, anything but beyond all doubt, is proven by other sources: the pianist Johann Baptist Cramer described Beethoven’s piano playing as “only inadequately trained, not rarely tumultuous”, while his composer colleague Luigi Cherubini found it simply “rough”. And yet what was fascinating about Beethoven’s playing was his distinct sense of tone. As his pupil Carl Czerny observed, Beethoven “manages difficulties and effects at the keyboard that we never even dreamed of”. He also incorporated passages that occasionally suggest improvisation into the rhapsodically free First Piano Concerto, composed in Vienna in 1795. With Rudolf Buchbinder as soloist, the solo part is in the hands of one of the most renowned interpreters of piano music in the Viennese classical period.
Anton Bruckner early on enjoyed a reputation as one of the most brilliant organ players of his time. But he wanted nothing to do with a permanent career as a travelling virtuoso: “I have neither time nor the will to concern myself unduly in this regard”, Bruckner wrote in 1864: “Organists are always poorly paid.” For this reason, four years later the composer presented himself to the public with his First Symphony. Nonetheless, another 20 years were to pass before Bruckner had his real breakthrough as a composer of symphonies. After the Leipzig premiere of his Seventh, Bruckner was gratified in December 1884 that “at the end they applauded for a quarter-hour”. Performances of the work in Munich and Vienna in the two subsequent years turned into real triumphs for the composer. Thanks to its extended melodic breath and richly coloured instrumentation, Bruckner’s Seventh is the composer’s most popular symphony through the present day, and the one played most often. With Christian Thielemann at the helm, these Berliner Philharmoniker concerts are headed up by a conductor for whom the music of Beethoven and Bruckner is his core repertoire.