Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No 4 in G major Op. 58
Andante con moto
Rondo – Vivace
The difference is noticeable immediately at the beginning of the first movement. Traditionally, the orchestra outlines the initial thematic material and the soloist enters after a lengthy wait. In this case, the piano begins with material that sounds as if it is being made up on the spot before the orchestra gently takes over and develops it. In the second movement, the calm piano line is the counterfoil to the gruff and restless strings.
Franz Liszt likened the soloist’s role to the legend of Orpheus taming the wild beasts with his lyre. Eventually, the piano’s serenity does prevail only to be overtaken by an energetic final-movement rondo. Wit rather than boisterousness is the name of the game although the brief coda does manage to break free and bring the piece to a rambunctious close.
Beethoven gave the premiere performance in a private concert at the palace of his patron Prince Lobkowitz in March of 1807. Acutely aware of his seriously diminished hearing, Beethoven scoured Vienna for a replacement to premiere the work in public. The first pianist he contacted said the piece was too difficult to learn quickly. The next soloist agreed to perform it but then, at the last minute, played another of Beethoven’s concertos. The composer was furious and despite his auditory difficulties, he took matters into his own hands and added the piece, with himself as soloist, to an already mammoth concert on 22 December, 1808.
The concert was put on at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna with his Fifth and Sixth symphonies and the Choral Fantasy being premiered along with the Concerto and some movements from the Mass in C major.
The ambitious concert ended up being a comedy of errors lasting over four hours. Even though the concert took place in the dead of winter, the hall was unheated and Beethoven’s difficult personality meant that the orchestra was fatally under rehearsed. The final piece on the programme, the Choral Fantasy, was acknowledged by all present to be a terrible mess. Predictably, the Concerto and most of the other premieres received lukewarm appreciation for the audience.
Op. 58 languished into obscurity until it was rescued by Felix Mendelssohn in 1836. A young Robert Schumann heard this performance and was so transfixed that he later reported, “I sat in my place without moving a muscle or even breathing.” Patrons at the premiere concert likely would have said the same thing although their reaction would more likely have been caused by hypothermia than musical ecstasy.