“It has always been known that the greatest pianoforte players were also the greatest composers; but how did they play? Not like the pianists of today who prance up and down the keyboard with passages in which they have exercised themselves—what does that mean? Nothing.”
Ludwig van Beethoven in conversation 1814
A perusal of Beethoven’s early works reveals a number of pieces crafted to make a big impression. Of all of these youthful “calling card” pieces, perhaps the Piano Concerto in C major is the most audacious. Although we know it as his Concerto no. 1, it was his third essay in the genre- an early concerto in D major, written when he was only 13, never made it into the canon. This was followed by the work we now know as the Concerto no. 2 in B flat in 1790, and then, about five years later, this Concerto in C major. Even in the context of Beethoven’s entire output, it is a bold and massive work. Depending on which cadenza the soloist chooses, it is possibly on an even grander scale than the Emperor Concerto. Beethoven chose to make his “Piano Concerto no. 1” such a bold statement with good reason- in the 1790s, he was far better known as a pianist than as a composer.
The work he put before the Viennese in 1795 as part of a concert organized by his teacher Josef Haydn (featuring three of his new “London” symphonies), would have been the longest concerto ever heard in the city. Audiences scanning their programmes that night would have expected the work to be extrovert in tone- the choice of C major as a key and the inclusion of trumpets and drums would have quickly drawn comparisons with Mozart’s late piano concerti in the same key, and the Jupiter Symphony. However, the work opens not with chest-thumping grandeur, but with a soft, cheeky march. Beethoven will make much use of the tension created by unexpectedly extended stretches of soft music throughout the movement. When the soloist enters for the first time, it is with a tune not yet heard, and one that we will not hear again, but it is in the development that Beethoven’s imagination truly takes flight- musicologist Michael Steinberg calls this “one of Beethoven’s most magical chapters.” After a couple of sudden harmonic lurches, the music breaks through into something like a dream state. The entire development unfolds in miraculous intimacy, never really rising above a whisper, full of dreamlike chords, only bursting forth at the recapitulation with the fortissimo we’d expected from the very beginning. Beethoven would have improvised his cadenza at the premiere, but about ten years later he wrote two cadenzas, taking advantage of the expanded range of his new piano. One of these is of normal scale, the other is enormous, and some critics have questioned whether such a big cadenza is somehow out of proportion to the work, a question only Beethoven could have answered definitively, and did.
The following Largo begins in the distant, dark key of A-flat major, opening with a slow version of the march rhythm that began the first movement underpinning the piano melody. As with so many of his later concerti, this middle movement is sublimely inward looking and spiritual. The final Rondo shows Beethoven at his wittiest and most mischievous- Haydn must have been pleased with it at that first concert. He would certainly have delighted in the way Beethoven takes a simple, cheeky theme and builds from it a movement full of outrageous harmonic twists and turns. At the very end, one senses the pianist running out of steam, slipping back into the dream world of the development of the first movement. Beethoven’s pupil Czerny advised conductors to then wait as long as they could stand it, again savouring the tension created by unexpectedly extended stretches of soft music, before unleashing the final mad fortissimo flourish.