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Piano Concerto No.1 in C Major Op.15

Beethoven: Concerto No.1 in C for Piano and Orchestra, Opus 15

A composer-pianist at the end of the 18th century was expected to introduce himself with new works of his own composing, and for this purpose Beethoven wrote his B flat and C major piano concertos during his first years in Vienna. Apart from a concerto in E flat, which he had composed in Bonn at the age of 14 and which survives only incomplete, they were his first works in the medium. In order of composition the Concerto in C was the second of the two, but it misleadingly acquired the label No.1 because it was the first published. The first known performance took place in Prague in the spring of 1798 with the composer as soloist.

It was two years after this that Beethoven extended the boundaries of musical expression in a big way with his Third Piano Concerto, but there were quite enough striking original touches in the first two to startle the audiences of the time, and already there was a clear development between the B flat and C major concertos. The latter, much more positive than its predecessor, is clearly the work of a young giant flexing his muscles.

The simple opening theme begins with an octave leap which is to be a recurrent feature of the movement. Deceptively quiet as introduced by the strings, the theme becomes a martial affair when the full orchestra takes it up. The graceful second subject arrives in unexpected E flat, but we are allowed only four bars of the melody before it is interrupted. The same four bars are tried in two more keys, then the orchestra combines the first theme’s octave leap with the scale from the second, and winds up its exposition with a new, march-like theme. The piano enters with a theme of its own, but the orchestra recalls it to the matter in hand and in due course the soloist gives out the full version of the lyrical second subject that we were previously denied. The piano holds the centre of attention in the development, which ends with a novel passage of chromatic chords against horn chords. After the reprise of the movement’s themes there comes the soloist’s cadenza – Beethoven provided a choice of three - and a brisk conclusion with the octaves from the beginning.

After this busy activity the long slow movement in A flat strikes a deeper note of feeling. The piano introduces a peaceful, song-like melody which the first clarinet continues no less expressively. Although there is an attractive second theme, Beethoven concentrates on the first, which is embellished with graceful piano writing suggestive of a nocturne and with imaginative variations of orchestral tone-colour, the clarinet intervening eloquently in the tranquil coda.

The robustly humorous finale is a rondo with a boisterous main theme offering scope for witty variation and exhilarating harmonic modulations. Between its appearances come equally energetic episodes with offbeat accents or syncopated rhythm. The flow of ideas is inexhaustible, and the high spirits are unbroken save for two bars of mock pathos from the oboes just before the end.

Eric Mason

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