When the 23-year-old Beethoven arrived in Vienna from Bonn in November 1782, it was at the suggestion of Haydn, who had invited him to become his pupil. It was not all plain sailing, Beethoven’s Rhenish accent fell on Viennese ears as coarse and uncouth. His manner was brusque and his appearance did not meet the Viennese image of a young gentleman. His complexion was pock-marked and swarthy (as a boy in Bonn his nickname had been ‘The Spaniard’). Within a year he had fallen out with the elderly Haydn, who found him an obstinate pupil.
However, it was as pianist that Beethoven first created a sensation in Vienna. Back in Bonn, a visitor described Beethoven’s playing: “His style of treating the instrument is so different from that usually adopted, that it impresses one with the idea that, by a path of his own discovery, he has attained that height of excellence whereon he now stands.” In Vienna, the composer Carl Czerny, reported: “he knew how to produce such an effect upon every hearer that frequently not an eye remained dry … there was something wonderful in his expression in addition to the beauty and originality of his ideas and his spirited style of rendering them.”
The five piano concertos are milestones on Beethoven’s journey as composer-pianist from youthful virtuoso to mature master. By the time he was into his thirties, however, increasing deafness was preventing him from performing in public. The last two concertos had to be premiered with other pianists, much to Beethoven’s frustration.
The Concerto No.1 in C major was the second of Beethoven’s five piano concertos to be completed but the first to be published. Beethoven performed it in Prague in 1798. Joseph Wölffl, a rival pianist, reported: “Beethoven’s magnificent playing stirred me strangely to the depths of my soul … I did not touch my pianoforte for several days.” C major is something of a ‘military’ key, and the concerto opens with a no-nonsense theme. The first movement unfolds brilliantly. The slow movement, on an expansive scale, is followed by an unbuttoned rondo.
Beethoven played the B flat Concerto in his first Viennese public appearance as pianist-composer in 1795. It was all a bit of a rush: thirty-six hours before the concert, Beethoven was still composing the third movement! The concerto is highly original. The first movement, rich in ideas, is full of exuberance; the noble Adagio has an almost operatic quality while the rollicking finale’s quirky rhythms are Beethoven in the best of moods.
The Third Concerto, in C minor, dates from the summer of 1800. On 5th April 1803 Beethoven gave a concert in the Theater an der Wien to showcase the premiere of his oratorio ‘Christ on the Mount of Olives’. We do not have the full programme but the concert also included his First and Second Symphonies and this Concerto. The reviews were luke-warm: the oratorio was not well received, and the audience was bewildered by the Concerto. In the first two concertos, Beethoven had announced his arrival with fireworks. Now we hear the fully mature composer, and his emotional canvas reveals new horizons. They are far from untroubled.
The Fourth Concerto, in G major, begun in 1805, is on an even more exalted plane. The work contains some of Beethoven’s most profound music. In passages as dramatic as anything in the symphonies the solo piano engages in cosmic struggle with the orchestra.
The so-called ‘Emperor’ Concerto dates from 1809 and was premiered towards the end of 1810. A review reported that the work put the audience into “such a state of enthusiasm that it could hardly content itself with the ordinary expressions of recognition and enjoyment.” The first movement is extrovert and virtuosic, contrasting with the ecstatic, free-flowing Adagio that follows. The finale is exultant, with trumpets and drums lending it a military character.
In a sketchbook of 1811, alongside sketches for the Eighth Symphony, there are indications that Beethoven was considering a further work for piano and orchestra. It came to nothing.
Wilhelm Kempff (25 November 1895 – 23 May 1991)
“Most mercurial of musical geniuses, Kempff's playing created an instantly recognisable aura and ambience, making comparison with other great pianists of the 20th century an exercise in irrelevance.” Thus the distinguished piano critic Bryce Morrison, writing in ‘Gramophone’ magazine.
Kempff grew up near Potsdam and received most of his musical education in Berlin. He made his performing debut in 1917 and gave his last concert in 1981, and his recording career spanned six decades. He recorded the Beethoven Concertos and Piano Sonatas twice and made one of the first complete recordings of the Schubert Sonatas. His playing is distinguished by lyricism and spontaneity, and he was never one for making exaggerated gestures just for effect.
Sleeve notes by John Kehoe