Listening to Beethoven #151 – Piano Concerto no.1 in C major Op.15

piano-concerto-1
Beethoven (1987) by Andy Warhol – screenprint on Lenox Museum Board

Piano Concerto no.1 in C major Op.15 for piano and orchestra (1795-1800, Beethoven aged 29)

Dedication Princess Babette Odescalchi (a former pupil)
Duration 35′

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

Beethoven tried his hand at a piano concerto back in 1784 at the age of 13, and although it was another 17 years before his next attempt was published, the musical form was never far from his mind. As Barry Cooper reports in his booklet note for Hyperion’s new recordings with soloist Stephen Hough, ‘By 1795, Beethoven felt ready to launch a public career as a pianist-composer. He began composing his Piano Concerto no.1, making numerous sketches and rough drafts’.

A prototype seems to have been performed at the Burgtheater in Vienna on 29 March 1795, with the finale composed in a hurry, but the work was revised in 1800 and written out afresh. This final version was published in March 1801, with the original lost. Cooper writes that ‘around this time, Beethoven began including pedal marks in his own piano works, and this concerto was his first work (along with the Quintet for piano and wind Op.16) to be published with them’.

Daniel Heartz notes that the work ‘calls for the full orchestra of Mozart’s largest piano concertos’ – and goes on to draw parallels with Mozart in Beethoven’s structuring of the first movement and the relationship between the piano and the orchestra. Cooper finds that ‘in all of Beethoven’s piano concertos, the first movement is the most complex, written in a blend of Baroque ritornello form and the more modern sonata form.’ The suggestion is that a great deal of time has been spent on it, as well as the traditional cadenza near the end of the movement. While this section would normally be improvised by the soloist, Beethoven wrote out three possibilities – one in 1808 and two more in 1809.

Heartz describes the theme of the finale as ‘sharply etched in emphatic rhythms, with many repeated tones, lending it a popular or folklike character, like a country dance. For him the third theme has a ‘Slavic twang’.

The reaction to the concerto is not well-documented, but it appeared in an 1801 concert in Vienna which included the first performance of the Septet and the Symphony no.1, also in C major.

Thoughts

Beethoven’s official entry into the concerto arena has a real sense of occasion in its opening minutes. The orchestra play for a good three minutes before we hear the piano, which would surely have heightened the audience expectation back in 1801. It is an elegant theme that gains stature and power, complemented by a flowing second tune.

When the piano has arrived Beethoven enjoys its qualities in dialogue with the orchestra, as well as showing it off. There are some surprisingly quiet, touching moments where the ear is pulled in – just as there are the more obvious opportunities for display.

The first movement is a long one but sustains the drama through to the cadenza, the soloist given plenty of time to display their wares. It may even be too long in comparison to the rest of the work, for it is almost half the duration.

For the slow movement Beethoven chooses A flat major, the same key which held our rapt attention for the second movement of the Pathétique sonata. Here the effect is similar if not quite as concentrated, yet there are tender asides both for the soloist and the orchestra and some lovely prompting from the woodwind, clarinet in particular. The piano tells its story in expressive tones.

The best tune, however, is held over for the finale. It is a catchy number with its roots in the dance, as Daniel Heartz notes, and because of the finale’s ‘Rondo’ structure (A-B-A-C-A-B-A) and its status as the ‘A’ theme, we hear it several times – and it is undoubtedly the tune the audience walk away humming!

Spotify playlist and Recordings used

Wilhelm Kempff, Berliner Philharmoniker / Ferdinand Leitner (Deutsche Grammophon)
Robert Levin, Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique / Sir John Eliot Gardiner (Arkiv)
Mitsuko Uchida, Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra / Kurt Sanderling (Philips)
Rudolf Serkin, Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra / Rafael Kubelik (Orfeo)
Claudio Arrau, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra / Bernard Haitink (Philips)
Martha Argerich, Philharmonia Orchestra / Giuseppe Sinopoli (Deutsche Grammophon)
Ronald Brautigam, Die Kölner Akademie / Michael Alexander Willens (BIS)
Stephen Hough, Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra / Hannu Lintu (Hyperion)

With so many recordings of the concerto it is only possible to offer a few pointers rather than declare a definitive version, but each of the above recordings have helped form an impression of the piece. Wilhelm Kempff and Ferdinand Leitner give a joyful account from 1960 which has held up extremely well, as do Rudolf Serkin and Rafael Kubelik from 1977. Serkin uses the biggest cadenza in the first movement, heightening dramatic impact even if it feels a bit unbalanced. Claudio Arrau’s musicianship is first class, with an especially beautiful delivery of the third movement theme. Robert Levin and John Eliot Gardiner create a special atmosphere in the hushed slow movement. Like Levin, Ronald Brautigam performs on a fortepiano, though his instrument has a coarser sound, lean and to the point. Despite the excitement of his reading the notes are a bit clumped in the finale.

To listen to clips from Stephen Hough’s new recording on Hyperion, head to their website

You can chart the Arcana Beethoven playlist as it grows, with one recommended version of each piece we listen to. Catch up here!

Also written in 1800 Boieldieu Harp Concerto in C major

Next up Horn Sonata in F major Op.17

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