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Piano Concerto No.3 in C Minor Op.37

Beethoven: Concerto in No.3 in C minor for Piano and Orchestra, Opus 37

When Beethoven began sketching this concerto in 1797, he was enjoying considerable success in Vienna as a young composer-pianist and had two piano concertos already to his credit. The third was to be an altogether bigger work and the new century dawned before he completed it. ‘Concerto 1800 Da L.v.Beethoven’, he wrote on the finished manuscript, an apt date for a forward-looking composition. By the time of the first performance – in Vienna on 5 April 1803 – Beethoven was embarking on the Eroica Symphony, which decisively marked off the new century from the old.

At the turn of the century the structural innovations of the Fourth and Fifth Concertos lay five and nine years ahead. In the C minor Concerto Beethoven was still content to use a conventional formal layout, but most of the themes are distinctly Beethovenian and the first movement develops a rude strength owing nothing to earlier composers. The choice of key is significant, for C minor is the key of the Mozart concerto (K.491) that Beethoven most admired and also of his own Fifth Symphony, to which in some ways this concerto looks forward.

There is a long opening section for the orchestra, beginning with a soft theme containing elements that will dominate the movement: a rising arpeggio, a descending scale and a five-note rhythmic motive. The second subject is a flowing theme on clarinet and strings. The piano enters with three massive scales and a forceful proclamation of the first subject. Then it retraces the course of the orchestra’s exposition, adding alternately vigorous and graceful embellishments. At its second entry (the beginning of the development section) we again hear those massive rising scales, this time leading not to the first subject but to the rhythmic motive from its tail. This figure features prominently as a unifying factor. After the piano cadenza – Beethoven wrote out his own one in 1809 – the pianist follows the precedent of Mozart’s C minor Concerto by joining with the orchestra in the coda.

Having made a late entry in the first movement, the piano is allowed the first say in the Largo, introducing a broad, expressive melody in the remote key of E major. The orchestra adds its own reflections on the theme. The middle section of this three-part movement takes hold of a descending phrase from the initial melody as the subject of exchanges between bassoon and flute, which the piano accompanies with arabesques without dispelling the rapt mood. When the broad melody returns, it is again given to piano and orchestra in turn. Then the piano embarks upon florid ornamentations, ranging through scales and arpeggios to a short cadenza. The piano falls silent and the orchestra makes a last reference to the first phrase of the melody, which the piano softly repeats.

The rondo finale has a sharply accented first theme in two halves. Dramatic chords for wind and percussion lead to a sprightly descending-scale second theme. A later episode offers a suave clarinet melody, after which the rondo tune reappears as a fugue. The piano then deftly switches the key from C minor to E major, and the orchestra makes several attempts to recommence the main theme in the original key before the piano succeeds in doing so. Another airing of the rondo themes brings us to a piano cadenza. No surprises here, but the soloist has a big one in store, whipping the tempo up to Presto and switching into C major and 6/8 time to show the rondo themes in a completely new guise.

Eric Mason

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