Listening to Beethoven #215 – Triple Concerto in C major Op.56

View of the Augarten Palace and Park, Vienna by Johann Ziegler

Triple Concerto in C major Op.56 for piano, violin, cello and orchestra (1803-4, Beethoven aged 33)

1 Allegro
2 Largo (attacca)
3 Rondo alla polacca

Dedication Joseph Franz von Lobkowitz
Duration 38′

Listen

written by Ben Hogwood

Background and Critical Reception

It is fashionable in recent times to look down on Beethoven’s Triple Concerto, but despite its perceived critical failings it was an innovative work for its time. Lewis Lockwood notes how, “We can readily connect the Triple Concerto with the symphonie concertante that had prospered in France and in French-influenced centres such as Bonn and Mannheim in the later eighteenth century, and which stayed alive until about 1810.”

Beethoven had performers in mind when writing the piece, too – the violinist Georg August Seidler, cellist Anton Kraft (the senior figure in the cello-playing family) and almost certainly Beethoven himself, at the piano. Jan Swafford traces the origins of Beethoven’s thinking to the baroque concerto grosso, describing the work as ‘gorgeous but peculiar, expensive and impractical to perform’. Commentators are united in drawing a link to Beethoven’s intentions at the time of composition, where he was looking to move to Paris and impress the musical hierarchy there. The concerto would have been in his arsenal for sure, but while staying put it quickly lost its allure – with no public performance until 1808, at the summer concerts in Augarten (above)

The Triple Concerto has a substantial structure, with a first movement almost 20 minutes in length – then a relatively brief Largo in A flat major which leads directly to a Rondo alla Polacca finale. The key choice is instructive, A flat having been used for the slow movements of the Pathetique sonata and the Piano Concerto no.1. Commentators have noted how prominent the cello in this piece – and in their excellent book Beethoven’s Cello, Marc D. Moskovitz and R. Larry Todd spend time examining its role.

Along with Lewis Lockwood, they see the Triple Concerto as a forebear to techniques used by Beethoven soon after in his third Cello Sonata, Op.69, with Lockwood going further to bring in the two piano trios Op.70.

Thoughts

Listening to the Triple Concerto is a pleasant if undemanding experience – and if the listener is in the right mood an enjoyable concert experience is in store. It certainly is a long first movement, its 20 minutes an extraordinary length of time for a concerto even when there are three soloists involved. Although it can seem very drawn out at times there is a very appealing warmth, especially when the cello is to the fore. Its themes are invested with a great deal of warmth, complemented by the violin and then trumped by the piano.

The second movement feels like a flash in the pan, for it is only 5 minutes in length (roughly 15% of the work) but it has an appealing tenderness and lyricism. The Rondo alla Polacca is a ‘safe’ C major, though there is some dancing as the soloists have fun together.

The musical language of the Triple Concerto feels relatively basic – back in C major as we were in the Piano Concerto no.1 – but the interplay between the soloists is where the chief interest lies. The language feels quite basic – we are in C major as we were for the first piano Concerto – and the length of the piece is considerable. Yet, in the right combination of soloists and orchestra, the Triple Concerto can still be an appealing proposition.

Recordings used and Spotify links

David Oistrakh (violin), Mstislav Rostropovich (cello), Sviatoslav Richter (piano), Berliner Philharmoniker / Herbert von Karajan (EMI)
Christian Tetzlaff, Tanja Tetzlaff, Royal Northern Sinfonia / Lars Vogt (Ondine)
Wolfgang Schneiderhan, Pierre Fournier, Géza Anda, Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin / Ferenc Fricsay (Deutsche Grammophon)
Beaux Arts Trio, London Philharmonic Orchestra / Bernard Haitink (Philips)
Urban Svensson, Mats Rondin, Boris Berezovsky, Swedish Chamber Orchestra / Thomas Dausgaard (Simax)

The Triple Concerto discography is dripping with illustrious soloists, sometimes starry individuals in search of a winning trio showcase, or artists who have formed a genuine musical chemistry together. Of the versions listed above, there are some high voltage collisions that prove an intoxicating experience – none more so than the irresistible combination of Oistrakh, Rostropovich, Richter and Karajan.

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 1804 Spohr Violin Concerto no.2 in D minor Op.2

Next up Piano Sonata no.23 in F minor Op.57 ‘Appassionata’

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