Beethoven (1987) by Andy Warhol – screenprint on Lenox Museum Board
Piano Concerto no.2 in B flat major Op.19 for piano and orchestra (1787-1800, Beethoven aged 29)
Dedication Karl Nickl von Nickelsberg
Background and Critical Reception
Beethoven’s ‘second’ piano concerto has a detailed history, and is actually his first in order of composition, completed some distance before the official no.1.
Thought to have been started in Bonn as far back as 1787, when the composer was just 16, it underwent several revisions, with the first movement the only survivor from the original edition. Beethoven had an original version of the Rondo in B flat major in place for a performance in Prague in 1798, but this was ‘upgraded’ later that year.
When he presented the concerto to his publisher Hoffmeister, on 15 January 1801, Beethoven introduced the second concerto as a piece ‘which I do not claim to be one of my best’. Jan Swafford, while agreeing the first movement is ‘one of the most routine orchestral movements Beethoven ever published’, goes on to note that ‘…beneath a not particularly bold surface, his searching nature can’t help showing itself’. He highlights the ‘startling tonal excursions’ of the first movement, and the ‘more mature, more Viennese’ nature of the second and third. A link is also drawn to ‘the lofty choruses of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte’ in the Adagio.
Barry Cooper, in his notes for the recent recording by Stephen Hough, Hannu Lintu and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra on Hyperion, describes the ‘strange, off-beat theme’ of the finale, ‘that adds a great sense of humour to the movement – especially when it returns near the end in a remote key (G major), with the rhythm shifted slightly so that the long notes now fall on the beat instead of after it.’
This is Beethoven with bright eyes and a bushy tail, though throughout the Piano Concerto no.2 there is often a sense of politeness, as though the composer is keen to establish himself in the form before doing anything too outlandish.
The first movement is the most expansive, and there are some lovely moments, particularly the way the piano floats in on the back of the orchestral introduction. Soon the keyboard is dominating with flourishes for both hands, exchanging thoughts with the orchestra.
Beethoven enjoys moving into distant keys – thematic material appears in D flat major and then in the beautifully hushed tones of G flat. Other than that he has a lot of fun, and when the movement hints at a soft ending the piano bubbles up to lift the energy and cross the line at a faster pace.
The heart of this piece, however, lies in the second movement Adagio. The breathy introduction from the strings is a magical moment, Beethoven in one of his favourite keys (E flat major) but writing music of an operatic dimension, an aria for piano and orchestra. His studies with Salieri may well have informed this.
As with the first concerto, the best tune is saved for the last movement – and again it is a Rondo, giving concert-goers an earworm for the interval – and just about trumping the original Rondo that Beethoven had written, which now survives as a standalone piece. This one is particularly upbeat, and there are elements of the military march. The third theme, in G minor, has a rustic quality with its ornamentation.
The B flat concerto would surely have been the ideal vehicle for Beethoven as he gradually left his musical mark on Viennese concert life. On occasion it resembles Mozart’s last concerto, in the same key, but there are original elements that could only be by Beethoven, who has fun with virtuosity at the keyboard, unexpected harmonic shifts and a dialogue with the orchestra that is never less than genial. It is a fresh and invigorating piece.
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)
Stephen Kovacevich, BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sir Colin Davis (Philips)
The B flat concerto is a particularly fresh piece of work in the hands of Stephen Kovacevich, with bright accompaniment from the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Sir Colin Davis. Robert Levin and John Eliot Gardiner’s account is very nicely judged, and there is a magical moment towards the end of the slow movement when the main theme returns in hushed strings. Boris Giltburg has a light touch in the first movement of his recording with the RLPO and Petrenko, and the orchestra respond to his airy approach, making the music sound fresh. The tender slow movement is beautifully poised. Mitsuko Uchida brings balance and a light touch to her recording with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Kurt Sanderling, who are occasionally expansive in their accompaniment.
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 Symphony no.1 in C major Op.21