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Beethoven: piano concerto no 5, in E flat major, opus 73‏

"Beethoven" - Joseph Karl Stieler

A portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven (1820)

Joseph Karl Stieler


you might say a triumvirate of piano concertos dominate
our Western musical culture, a veritable trinity of pianistic
masterworks that tower over, and have ruled, our musical
consciousness throughout the modern epoch, the
Rachmaninoff 3 has been one of them, but the 5th of
n is surely the granddaddy, the “Guppa” as a
favourite grandchild I know would say, the Olympian
Zeus, the Christian God the Father, of them all, in majesty
and authority, others quake in its overwhelming aura, it is
the sun to all the other stars

Glenn Gould is the standard still by which it should be
played, none yet, to my mind, has surpassed him

Karel Ancerl conducts the Toronto Symphony Orchestra,
a competent orchestration, overshadowed inevitably by
this prodigy, who nevertheless doesn’t ever flaunt his
finger play but remains faithful throughout to the
dictates, the tonal balances, of the music, it is 1972

I had mentioned “variations in volume, tempo, tonality,
the play of harmonization and discords” in Rachmaninoff
note the strict adherence to tempo here, even the fastest
runs of notes are grounded in beat, more solid, less elusive
than the iridescent Rachmaninoffian allusions to Debussy,
you could set a metronome to the appropriate tempo of
each individual movement in Beethoven, it would remain
constant, apart from a few restrained ritardandos near
the end of some musical elaborations, until its very final
apotheosis, beat was ever an anchor for the fulgurating
Beethoven, an article of faith from which he strayed only
with great circumspection

note the language is not emotional, passionate and ardent,
but philosophical, metaphysical, Beethoven is confronting
cosmological considerations, existential realities, not the
more emotional concerns that confound us every day, it’s
God he’s talking to, eternity, not the incarnate tendrils
of the moment, not the poignant stuff even of soon
through Schubert a Chopin, Beethoven was at the start
of that Romantic Movement, indeed its very first
proponent, but not quite ready to wear his heart itself
on his sleeve, but a more spiritual, probing reason, whose
ardent metaphysical ratiocinations would set all the others
on fire, setting the stage for all the other stars

later, if you haven’t guessed what it’ll be already, I’ll
supply you with the third concerto, the Holy Ghost, of
the trinity, the Apollo, god of music and the sun, among
our concert greats


Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto no 3, in D minor, opus 30

fully 150 years after Mozart the concerto was still a thriving
musical form though it had undergone some modifications,
you’ll hear a more passionate account in Rachmaninoff than
the more lyrical, less emotionally overt compositions of
Mozart, the variations in volume, tempo, tonality, the play
of harmonization and discords, all incidentally within a single
movement, show the passage of time, of Beethoven, of Chopin,
of Debussy between Mozart and the more Romantic, Impressionistic
Rachmaninoff, note the sweeping ritardandos, where the beat is
drawn out, stretched for pathos, a Chopinesque insinuation into
music not found in earlier stuff, one imagines torrid expressions
of fervent sentiment, note the evanescent flurry of notes passing
by like the fleeting glitter of stars, the ephemerality of an
incorporeal idea that Debussy originated and brought to music,
and of course note the irrepressibility, the authority, the masculinity
of a volcanic Beethoven underpinning the lot, you can hear them all

the Vladimir Horowitz Piano Concerto no 3 of Rachmaninoff at
Carnegie Hall, January 8, 1978, with Eugene Ormandy leading the
New York Philharmonic Orchestra is, after Van Cliburn’s historic
1950s account, May 19, 1958, again at Carnegie Hall but under Kiril
Kondrashin this time, and the now defunct Symphony of the Air,
don’t ask, the one I then grew up with, it was riveting even without
the pictures

with pictures here he is again a few months later at Avery Fisher
Hall in New York, September 24, 1978, under Zubin Mehta with
again the New York Philharmonic, so good you’ll even forgive
Mehta his usual sentimental excesses

incidentally Horowitz was 74 at this concert, he is astounding

Vladimir Horowitz, colossus and legend, 1903 -1989

enjoy, be transported, be transfixed, you have been warned


piano concerto no 25, K.503, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Mozart in our Western musical tradition is arguably the first
composer to write piano concertos, for two reasons, first
cause earlier there were no pianos, there were only
harpsichords, Bach wrote five wonderful concertos but for
the harpsichord 
secondly cause music was coming out of the shadow of the
Church in order to also cater to a more secular audience,
the monied aristocracy, who were looking for status through
art, personal portraits, music to make more illustrious their
already storied houses
Mozart is sprightly, unaffiliated, unopinionated, and
supremely talented, it was going to take a Beethoven to
make music more profound
meanwhile we have Mozart’s effervescent baubles, his
glistening, incandescent gems  
three movements
     1. allegro maestoso     
     2. andante    
     3. allegretto    
K is for KöchelLudwig von Köchel, the man who catalogued
Mozart’s works chronologically, of which there have been
accumulated after several revisions 626, none of which had
originally been given titles, though later sometimes
posthumously, for instance the “Jupiter” Symphony, his last,
no 41, K551  
no one plays Mozart like Mitsuko Uchida  

Beethoven, Triple Concerto in C major, op. 56

recently trying to familiarize a friend of mine with the idea
of the concerto, something I’d been working at with him for
quite some time, along with the related concepts of the
sonata, the trio, the quartet, quintet, sextet, and, following
those numerical indices, the symphony, when to count the
multiplicity of instruments involved would be asinine, I
asked, what do you think you’d hear if I said a triple concerto

after some polite leeway I answered for him, you’d need
a symphony of course, another word for an orchestra but
perhaps with some pedantry, showcasing in this case not
one, not two, but three soloists in conversation with
the band, another word again for orchestra, this time
connoting perhaps less pedantry, calibrating prestige
as it moves from the bar to the nightclub, to the more
rarefied air of the concert hall

most often a concerto will spotlight one only performer, one
must consider temperaments, finances, compositional ability,
three musical variables instead of the usual, and less demanding
but still impressive, hypothetically virtuosic, one

and indeed I knew of only one triple concerto then, Beethoven’s,
though I’ve since learned of another by Mozart, but that’s another

not only was this a triple concerto, I exhilarated, but one by
Beethoven, Nietzsche’s very superman, an entity of supreme
musical authority

and in my collection I had it performed by Yo-Yo Ma, the superstar
cellist, who needs no other introduction, Emanuel Ax at the piano,
whom I’ve admired for many years, dominating some of the most
difficult piano pieces in the catalogue with elegance and majesty,
often accompanying Ma, and Gil Shaham, an internationally famous
violin virtuoso of the very highest order

I trembled at the very thought, and hoped my friend would also thrill
at the opportunity

we watched

Ma, Ax, and Shaham did their usual unforgettable stuff

Alan Gilbert conducts the New York Philharmonic, another word for
symphony, that one, with perhaps a nod to a congruence of many
harmonies instead of merely an assemblage of sounds, both here
striving equally however for the undifferentiated sublime

my friend later found me the corresponding online video