Listening to Beethoven #10 – Piano Concerto in E flat major


Beethoven, aged 13. This portrait in oils is said to be the earliest authenticated likeness of Beethoven – but Beethoven-Haus Bonn disputes this description, claiming it to be an unknown youth painted in the early 19th century.

Piano Concerto in E flat major WoO 4(1783-4, Beethoven aged 13)

Dedication not known
Duration 24′

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

Daniel Heartz tells the story of Beethoven’s first foray into the world of the concerto. Barely a teenager, ‘it was appropriate to the young composer’s status as a virtuoso of the keyboard that he should try his hand at writing a piano concerto.’

The work was incomplete however, with the orchestral part left unfinished beyond its two-piano reduction. The trip to Holland mentioned in the previous article on the Rondo in C major looks to have been the driving force behind this composition, for Heartz says that ‘Beethoven may have performed it in a concert at The Hague for which he was paid a large sum as a pianist, and at which Carl Stamitz also appeared as a viola soloist.’

As Jan Swafford notes, the work begins with a ‘flavour of hunting call-cum-march’, an ‘abiding topic in his future concerto first movements’. He calls it a ‘lively and eclectic piece that showed off his virtuosity’, while in his booklet notes to the DG complete Beethoven edition Barry Cooper notes its proximity in style to J.C. Bach rather than Mozart.

Thoughts

In Ronald Brautigam’s recording – where he made the orchestral arrangement – the horns are prominent in the opening salvo, which is reasonable to expect given the key of E flat major which will suit them. Then the piano takes over with an upbeat theme and some florid passagework. The music is fluently written, and follows the rules relatively closely in moving to the keys expected in the course of its development – B flat major, G minor, closely ‘related’ to the home key. The music is both charming and virtuosic.

For the slow movement Beethoven revisits a Larghetto direction (slow but not as slow as the ‘adagio’ tempo marking’) and writes music of an appealing delicacy and charm – undemanding but giving the soloist room to spread their wings a little.

For the finale Beethoven uses a Rondo form (presenting three themes in the sequence A – B – A – C – A – B – A) – a form he used for the last movement of each of his five published piano concertos. Despite the rigorous structure it again sounds very natural and the ‘A’ theme – which you hear from the start – is lightly playful, suggesting a less formal dance. The grace and charm of the third movement has a nice complement in the shape of a rustic ‘C’ theme where we briefly flirt with the minor key and the melody becomes more decorative. Only the ending is a bit strange, with a sudden cut-off point.

Recordings used

Ronald Brautigam (piano), Norrköpping Symphony Orchestra / Andrew Parrott (BIS)
Orchestra of Opera North / Howard Shelley (piano) (Chandos)

Ronald Brautigam gives a fine performance of the concerto, with attentive accompaniment from Andrew Parrott and the Norrköpping Symphony Orchestra. Howard Shelley’s version has a softer orchestration for the first theme of the piece which works really nicely. His playing follows suit, proving particularly effective in the second movement where his affection for Beethoven’s early work is clear.

Spotify links

Ronald Brautigam, Norrköping Symphony Orchestra / Andrew Parrott (tracks 1-3 of the link below)

Orchestra of Opera North / Howard Shelley (piano) (the fourth disc of an album containing all the Beethoven works for piano and orchestra)

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 1783 Abel 6 Symphonies Op.17

Next up Piano Concerto in E flat major WoO 4

Howard Shelley & London Mozart Players – Mozart Explored – Piano Concerto no.27

sjssHoward Shelley & London Mozart Players, St John’s Smith Square, 2 March 2016.

Mozart Explored: Piano Concerto no.27

For the latest in their Mozart Explored series at St John’s Smith Square, Howard Shelley and the London Mozart Players turned their attention to the composer’s final work in the form.

It is astonishing when you pause to think that Mozart had already completed 27 piano concertos by the age of 35, quite apart from everything else he did. Even after the composition of this piece, when he was under all sorts of personal and financial pressure, he managed to write such ‘trifles’ as The Magic Flute, the Clarinet Concerto and the Requiem. So although the music here was shown to be wonderfully positive there was a twinge of sadness at a career cut so short.

Howard Shelley was the ideal guide, affable yet knowledgeable, and although his keyboard was positioned so he faced the orchestra rather than the audience this was a good move, for everyone in St John’s could see his hands at the keyboard – and as a result the music physically being made.

St John’s is a lovely venue for this music, a world apart from the incessant clamour of Parliament Square just around the corner – an oasis by the Thames. Shelley’s demeanour only aided this hour of escape, talking through the circumstances around the composition of the concerto and also getting to the nub of the main themes of each of the three movements.

And then the performance itself, which was beautifully and stylishly given. With the orchestra ideally sized, Shelley conducted them through the opening bars of the first movement before his own graceful solo part asserted itself, stressing the vocal nature of much of this music.

There was lovely interplay particularly with the woodwind, who were also a prominent feature of the second movement, which felt like an aria in Shelley’s hands. The finale, written in celebration of the onset of Spring, could have been a little misplaced given the bitterly cold wind outside, but it became a light footed and quite graceful dance, Shelley again taking the lead.

The LMP return on Thursday March 16 to turn their attention to Beethoven’s Emperor Piano concerto – and if you can make it the rewards will surely be many!

Under the surface – Mendelssohn Preludes and Fugues played by Howard Shelley (Hyperion)

mendelssohn-shelley

Composer: Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)

Nationality: German

What did he write? Schumann regarded Mendelssohn as the ‘Mozart of the nineteenth century’, as he was an uncommonly gifted child prodigy. A pianist as well as a composer, Mendelssohn is nonetheless better known for his orchestral and choral works. His five symphonies are best represented by the Scottish, the Italian and the Reformation (nos.3-5 respectively), while his most famous choral work – and one often performed by amateur choral groups – is the story of the Old Testament prophet Elijah.

The composer’s impressive body of chamber music is now better appreciated, headed by two Piano Trios and six published String Quartets.

What are the works on this new recording? Mendelssohn’s work for solo piano is often regarded as a set of attractive miniatures. This is doubtless due to the popularity of the Lieder ohne Worte (Songs Without Words), published in sets of six throughout the composer’s career. They are around three minutes each in length and carry attractive music and titles such as Venetian Gondola Song. On this recording, part four of a complete series of Mendelssohn piano music, Howard Shelley gives us the fifth book, a complement to the main work itself – the set of six Preludes and Fugues.

Mendelssohn was almost single-handedly responsible for the revival of Bach’s music in the nineteenth century, resurrecting the composer in a performance of the St Matthew Passion in Berlin in 1829, when Mendelssohn was still only 20. In the Preludes and Fugues he was paying a more obvious musical homage, using a form Bach had perfected for the keyboard.

What is the music like? When a composer writes a fugue it can sound as though they are showing off academically rather than communicating emotionally, but Mendelssohn brings to these works a strong sense of purpose and poise. His instinctive writing for the piano means the notes effectively play themselves, but they are not easy to play – which is where Howard Shelley comes in! Under his fingers the fugues really jump off the page when moving at pace, and the preludes each have strong personality.

Complementing them with Book 5 of the more romantic Songs without Words is a good move, and Shelley takes up the role of poet in the fanfare of the third piece or the lyrical Spring Song. Finally he adds the Andante cantabile e Presto agitato, an unpublished work of two halves, the first soft-hearted and the second bright and energetic.

What’s the verdict? This brilliantly played and recorded disc shows just how accomplished Mendelssohn’s writing for piano became, and with Howard Shelley completely mastering the technical demands the listener can appreciate the emotion of the music. The Preludes and Fugues are inspiring for their resilience, the Songs without Words for their poetic charm.

Give this a try if you like… Schubert, Chopin, J.S.Bach.

Listen

You can listen to excerpts from the disc at the Hyperion website

Meanwhile you can hear more of the composer’s Songs without Words on Spotify, in a complete set made by Daniel Barenboim: