Beethoven’s Piano Concertos Nos. 2 and 3 with Mitsuko Uchida and Simon Rattle

10 Feb 2010

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle

Mitsuko Uchida

  • Ludwig van Beethoven
    Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 2 in B flat major, op. 19 (34 min.)

    Mitsuko Uchida Piano

  • Jean Sibelius
    Symphony No. 3 in C major, op. 52 (32 min.)

  • Ludwig van Beethoven
    Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 3 in C minor, op. 37 (42 min.)

    Mitsuko Uchida Piano

  • free

    “It’s a Venture – an Adventure” – Mitsuko Uchida and the Beethoven Concertos Part I (12 min.)

Mitsuko Uchida and the Berliner Philharmoniker, under the baton of Sir Simon Rattle, perform two of Beethoven’s piano concertos on the one evening. They are both early works, which, after leaving Bonn, Beethoven used to establish himself with the Viennese public: as a virtuoso performer and composer who struck a tone of unprecedented self-confidence in his music.

The Second Piano Concerto in B flat major is chronologically actually No. 1 and was Beethoven’s first large-scale orchestral work. The style is still restrained, and is influenced by Haydn and Mozart. It is therefore all the more overwhelming when the bombshell hits, so to speak: when daring harmonic turns and unexpected energetic gestures reveal the composer’s creativity. The development of this style can be found in the Third Piano Concerto. Even the key of C minor points to the “heroic” Beethoven as we know him from pieces such as his Fifth Symphony.

The second work on the programme was a premiere: Sibelius’s Third Symphony, which had never before been performed by the Philharmoniker. The piece marks a turning point in the composer’s creative activity. It has indeed the unmistakably Nordic timbre typical of Sibelius. However, in contrast to its sumptuous late-Romantic predecessors, this Symphony comes across as purified and concentrated: modernism is entering the composer’s field of view.

Born from the spirit of improvisation

Beethoven’s Second and Third Piano Concertos

After turning his back on his native Bonn in 1792, Ludwig van Beethoven initially attracted attention in Vienna as a pianist, and especially for his exceptional gifts in 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.”

Beethoven’s first two piano concertos provide the soloist with numerous passages that clearly suggest improvisation, and with their exceptionally pianistic writing for the solo instrument they establish a new type of concerto. Beethoven may have played the work now known as No. 2, the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in B flat major, op. 19, in an already revised version shortly after settling in the Austrian capital. He produced still further revisions for later appearances in Vienna (1794-95) as well as in Prague (1798). This last version postdates the first Vienna performance of the C major Concerto Op. 15 of 1795, accounting for the somewhat confusing numbering of the two works.

Even more than its slightly later sister work in C, Beethoven’s B flat Concerto owes a large debt to the model of Mozart’s instrumental concertos. In the formally classical outer movements, Beethoven has provided equally grateful material to the solo instrument and the orchestra. The slow middle movement of the concerto, by contrast, already exudes a genuinely Romantic spirit: the piano’s ornamental figures gradually assert themselves against the expressive thematic ideas initially presented by the orchestra. In the finale, Beethoven offers more evidence of his inexhaustible resources of melodic invention, devising one surprise and one charming twist after another for the passages framed by the rondo theme.

Beethoven later referred to his B flat major Concerto as “not one of my best”, but that can only be explained by the fact that he was already at work on the incomparably more forward-looking Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, op. 37. Although the formal layout of this work, composed between 1796 and 1804, doesn’t differ fundamentally from its two predecessors, it displays a series of novel features in the relationship between solo instrument and orchestra. The tutti exposition in the opening movement of the C minor Concerto, over 100 bars in length, no longer functions merely as an introduction to the piano’s first entry; the orchestra asserts itself here to become the solo instrument’s equal partner. Not until the solo exposition is the concentrated unfolding of the thematic material loosened up with brilliant passagework. Finally, a written-out cadenza, with its treatment of the principal themes along with free virtuoso passages, straddles the line between second development and improvisatory display for the soloist.

According to ear-witnesses, Beethoven’s playing was “deeply felt and romantic, especially in the Adagio”. If we listen with a bit of fantasy to the slow middle movement in the median key of E major, we can easily conjure up the magic of his keyboard delivery. The middle section of the movement is a small miracle in which the piano accompanies diffuse bassoon and flute parts that only hint at an unbroken melody.

In the concerto’s finale, Beethoven seems to have captured his famous art of improvisation in fixed form. He uses the rondo form with tremendous wit to unify seemingly disparate ideas: a string fugato flares up out of nowhere, as does an E major piano entry that reinterprets the tonality of the Adagio. Ultimately, however, the finale (and with it the entire work) arrives at a C major coda. And with good reason: even in its opening movement of the C minor Concerto, Beethoven’s “fate” key (think: Fifth Symphony) exhibits hardly of the dark character one has been led to expect.

Sibelius’s Third Symphony

“Style, formal severity and profound logic”

In 1910 Jean Sibelius wrote in his diary that a symphony for him was “not a ‘composition’ in the usual sense”, but rather a “confession of faith”. Three years earlier – only a few weeks before the premiere of his Third Symphony – he had met another leading symphonist of his generation: Gustav Mahler. In the course of their conversation, a dispute arose over the orchestral genre that had been attracting the greatest musical interest since Beethoven’s day. Whereas for Mahler, the symphony must be like the world and embrace everything, Sibelius remarked that for him the value of such a work lay in “the style, formal severity and the profound logic that creates an inner connection between all the motifs.”

To play off their divergent viewpoints against each other would be unfair to both composers. Yet the aesthetic premises at the core of their respective creative processes are as different as the works themselves. Mahler felt committed to a philosophical position, while Sibelius as a composer primarily pursued a pure musical conception. The “confessions of faith” that he acknowledged formulating in his symphonies are of a compositional, not an ideological, nature. That is why – Sibelius later explained – “they are all so different, each having its own style”.

Sibelius composed the Symphony No. 3 in C major, op. 52 between 1904 and 1907 and conducted the premiere in Helsinki on 25 September 1907. The three-movement, half-hour-long work has a classical formal structure, but one to which Sibelius brings many individual features. In spite of having two distinctive themes, the sonata-form first movement contains some nearly bare stretches because the composer treats its traditional formal elements as only scaffolding. And so the overtly folklike first theme, distributed among the orchestral tutti, and the lyrical second theme in B minor, introduced by the cellos, suddenly collide in the exposition, which is based more on effects of melodic contrast than on compositional development.

The slow movement in G minor, which features one of Sibelius’s most beautiful melodic inspirations, is a wonderful example the strict formal logic guiding the composer in his symphonic works: a stylised march theme with folk characteristics – Mahler would have been proud of this invention as well as the “squawking” wind passages of the ensuing finale – is here contrasted with two interludes and developed in such a manner that the movement can be plausibly interpreted as being either in song form, a series of variations or a rondo.

The finale is laid out in two sections. The first is a “sham” exposition to another sonata-form movement, made up of amorphous musical elements and occasional flashes of melodic fragments. Then, in the middle of the movement, following a development-like section instead of the expected recapitulation, a new theme, unassuming though marked “con energia”, is formed from the intervallic structures of the first section, but without explicitly referring to its motivic material. In the remainder of the movement, this theme is subjected to a broad-spanning intensification that leads to a surprisingly terse ending.

Mark Schulze Steinen

Translation: Richard Evidon

Mitsuko Uchida is admired throughout the whole world for performances marked by a rare degree of intellectual acuity and profound musical insight. She specializes in the keyboard music of Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, while also performing a repertory that includes works by Berg, Schoenberg, Debussy and Messiaen. She made her debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in June 1984, performing Messiaen’s Oiseaux exotiques under the direction of Seiji Ozawa and has returned to the Philharmonie on many occasions since then. During the 2008/9 season she was the orchestra’s Pianist in Residence. Among the orchestras with which she appears on a regular basis are the New York Philharmonic, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Philharmonia of London. She is also active as a chamber recitalist and has appeared not only on her own but also with other artists such as the Hagen Quartet and the mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená. Together with the pianist Richard Goode she currently runs the Marlboro Music Festival in the United States. She also supports young artists through her active involvement with the Borletti Buitoni Trust. In 2009 she was appointed a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II. This month she is performing all of Beethoven’s piano concertos with the Berliner Philharmoniker under the direction of Sir Simon Rattle.

Mitsuko Uchida appears by kind permission of Decca Classics.

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