Beethoven’ Piano Concerto No. 4 with Mitsuko Uchida and Simon Rattle

20 Feb 2010
Concert for the benefit of UNICEF’s emergency assistance

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle

Mitsuko Uchida

  • György Ligeti
    San Francisco Polyphony (15 min.)

  • Ludwig van Beethoven
    Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 4 in G major, op. 58 (40 min.)

    Mitsuko Uchida Piano

  • Jean Sibelius
    Symphony No. 2 in D major, op. 43 (48 min.)

  • free

    The Berliner Philharmoniker support UNICEF’s Haiti emergency assistance – a round table discussion (16 min.)

UNICEF usually gives the title “International Goodwill Ambassador” to outstanding individuals from the public arena. The Berliner Philharmoniker is the only institution in this exclusive club. As a result of the news about the devastating earthquake in Haiti on 10 January, the orchestra and its chief conductor Sir Simon Rattle gave a benefit concert for UNICEF with all proceeds going to the children of Haiti. The evening’s soloist Mitsuko Uchida also donated her fee to this very good cause.

The Berliner Morgenpost wrote in its review: “At just under a quarter of an hour, György Ligeti’s San Francisco Polyphony, with which Sir Simon Rattle and the Philharmoniker opened the concert, virtually caused a tonal earthquake in the city in 1975. Even today, the listener feels as if Ligeti has pulled the familiar musical carpet from under his feet. All resistance is futile. There was applause, if not of course to the same overwhelming extent as Mitsuko Uchida received. With her performance of the Fourth Piano Concerto, she finished her three-week long Beethoven cycle of all five piano concertos by the master, again assisted by the attentive and affectionate accompaniment of Sir Simon and his splendid philharmonic team. The highlight of her performance was, as to be expected, the soulful Andante, effortlessly played as if dreamed into the keyboard.”

New Paths

Works by Ligeti, Beethoven and Sibelius

Courting constant change – Ligeti’s San Francisco Polyphony

György Ligeti was always searching, delighting in change and often opposing the tastes of his times. He had an allergy to fashions and belonged to no school or group. In a lecture entitled “Musical Thinking” (1988), he revealed: “For decades I’ve been seeking a passage between the Scylla of the avant-garde, to which I no longer feel any affiliation, and the Charybdis of reversion to an earlier style.”

Ligeti’s musical style underwent a transformation in the mid-1960s. Whereas his music of the late 50s was principally based on what he called “micropolyphony”, the technique of a dense “interweaving” of instrumental parts, he now was moving in the direction of a polyphony that he characterised as “more transparent, more clearly drawn, sparser and more brittle”. San Francisco Polyphony, composed in 1973-74 for the 60th anniversary of the San Francisco Symphony, represents a “final product” of this development and exhibits a particularly consistent use of the new polyphony: “The individual melodic lines and patterns are unified within themselves, but their combination, both simultaneous and successive, is chaotic; on the other hand, the total form of the work, the overarching progression of the musical events manifests itself as orderly – one needs to imagine individual objects which are thrown into a drawer in great disorder, yet the drawer itself has a definite form: though filled with chaos, it is itself very well configured” (Ligeti).

San Francisco Polyphony consists of three sections, partly static, partly dramatic in character: an introduction featuring a chromatic tone cluster stretching over three octaves; an extended middle section, also dramatic in orientation but comparatively neutral in affect; and a concluding presto section. Here the composer harkens back to the machine-like perpetual motion familiar from his Poème symphonique for 100 metronomes, the harpsichord piece Continuum, but also movements from his Second String Quartet, Wind Quintet and Chamber Concerto.

Stripping Away Convention – Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto

Six crucial years in Ludwig van Beethoven’s life separated the composition of his Third and the completion of his Fourth Piano Concerto. During this time Beethoven wrote the Third Symphony (“Eroica”), the Piano Sonatas op. 53 (“Waldstein”) and 57 (“Appassionata”) as well as the three “Razumovsky” Quartets op.59. In the first three piano concertos, his orientation is clearly towards classical models, especially Mozart, but the Fourth marks a qualitative leap: Beethoven strips away the conventions and succeeds – at the highest artistic level – in fusing the solo concerto form with the symphonic developmental process.

The composer’s new paths are evident right at the opening. The concerto begins abruptly with a brief statement by the soloist, which is answered by the orchestra. A march-like theme develops out of the first tutti climax and later plays an important role in the recapitulation. The slow movement is an unusually terse Andante con moto of only 72 bars – not really a fully-fledged movement, but rather an astonishing dialogue between the piano’s quiet supplications and the orchestra’s stern, forceful replies. The finale is then launched without a break and pianissimo. Its main theme begins surprisingly in C major, and only after some time settles into the main key of G major. Beethoven adds trumpets and timpani to this movement, employing them especially when the fanfare-like rondo theme is heard.

A Work of Reorientation – Sibelius’s Second Symphony

1900-01 was a defining moment for Jean Sibelius in his path towards international recognition. During a European tour of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, which included, among other cities, Hamburg, Berlin, Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Brussels, the conductor Robert Kajanus programmed works by the composer. Sibelius himself conducted some of the tour concerts. In February 1901 he ventured still farther, to Italy, where he began the composition of his Second Symphony. In June he conducted two of his Legends based on the Kalevala with great success at the contemporary music festival organised by Richard Strauss in Heidelberg. Back in Finland, he withdrew to the country in order to continue work on his new symphony. It was completed before the end of the year and given its premiere on 8 March 1902 in Helsinki.

The Second Symphony may be called a work of reorientation. Although largely still adhering to traditional symphonic form, Sibelius is also exploring new ways of working with musical material. Thus the opening movement presents three thematic ideas instead of the usual dualism: a pastoral main theme, a violin passage and a trill motif. In spite of the splitting, recombination and fragmentation of the material, in spite of the jagged motifs, the sonata form remains recognisable.

The expressive Andante with three thematic groups derives its specific colouring from the bassoon at the opening as well as from the flute and trumpet playing in an uncommonly low register. The vivacissimo scherzo has the character of a perpetuum mobile. Out of a ninefold reiteration of the first note, the oboe formulates the lyrical theme of the Trio. The repetition of scherzo and trio leads directly into the finale, which is constructed from two large thematic complexes: a triumphant rising unison theme on strings with trumpet fanfare and a striding, surging theme. In the development section, the unison theme is extended and built up in intensity. The work concludes with a grand chorale, first on brass, then the whole orchestra.

Defying all attempts to interpret his symphonies in extra-musical terms, Sibelius insisted that none of them are programmatic in content. Nevertheless his close friend and most important interpreter, Robert Kajanus, did offer a programme for the Second Symphony, perhaps with the intention of generating interest in the new work. The first movement supposedly portrays the quiet pastoral life of the Finns; the second is a protest against the brutal Russian repression; the third depicts awakening national consciousness in terms of frenetic preparations; while the finale represents an apotheosis of hope and dreams of the triumph of Finnish national strength. However effective such a programme may have been, the Second quickly found its way into concert halls and has remained the most familiar and popular of its composer’s symphonies.

Helge Grünewald

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.

Watch now

Try out the Digital Concert Hall!

Try out the Digital Concert Hall!

In our free playlist, Kirill Petrenko conducts works including Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Peter Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique. The best seat in the house is reserved just for you!

View our free playlist