Programme notes: Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 2

LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN 1770-1827

Piano Concerto no. 2 in B flat Opus 19

1. Allegro con brio

2. Adagio

3. Rondo - Molto allegro

 

Despite being titled no.2, this concerto was in fact written before its C major companion, and was thus Beethoven's first major orchestral piece. The composer himself was the soloist at the first performance in 1795 in Vienna, where he had recently moved from his home town of Bonn. At the time he was studying composition under Haydn, and was already beginning to make a name for himself as a sought-after pianist. The concerto was subsequently extensively revised and reissued three years later.

In view of its relatively infrequent appearance in the concert repertoire, it may perhaps be argued that the B flat concerto is unjustly neglected, for the score reveals a remarkably sure hand in the development of inspired phrases and themes which belies the youthfulness of its composer.

The first movement opens with a full length exposition by the orchestra of the wealth of material to be used, much of it based on the opening bars which establish an immediate contrast between a feeling of vivacity and a mood of contemplation. When the soloist enters it is with a fresh theme, the first of any appreciable length, but the true second subject follows later, again introduced by the soloist. A notable feature of this movement is the way in which Beethoven keeps these thematic elements, often little more than scraps of melody, under taut control, and shows a near infallible sense of which should be developed and which recapitulated without further attention.

The adagio is a profound and moving dialogue between the piano and the orchestra, essentially mono-thematic, with a sustained breadth of phrase and a tendency to interrupt the melody by rests, as though the underlying passion was too strong for the music to support. At the end of the movement there is a strange recetative marked "con gran expressione" where the soloist plays a rhythmically decorated series of arpeggios, intermittently broken by fragments of the main theme by the strings. The effect is strangely moving.

The concluding rondo, on a theme that Haydn must have relished, includes a new theme that is more than a mere "episode", first announced by the piano in F major, but later to reappear in the tonic key, thus giving the finale the character not only of a rondo, but also of something nearer to a symphonic first movement.