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Piano Concerto No.2 in B Flat Major Op.19

Beethoven: Concerto No.2 in B flat for Piano and Orchestra, Opus 19

When Beethoven set out at the end of 1792 to seek his fortune in Vienna, he left behind a sorry existence in his native Bonn. His mother was dead, his father was about to die in alcoholic decrepitude. He had a small income as church organist to the Elector of Cologne, but war clouds were gathering over Bonn and there was no future there for the budding 22-year-old composer. Luckily, he had influential well-wishers, who probably noted that the great Haydn, on passing through Bonn in July that year, had commented favourably on the cantata that Beethoven showed him.

It was decided that the young composer should go to Vienna to study with Haydn, and someone – it may have been the Elector or Count Waldstein – put up the money needed. Armed with letters of introduction, Beethoven made the acquaintance of Viennese high society, and, despite his rough tongue and manners, his forceful personality and brilliant piano-playing soon won him high-placed admirers and well-to-do piano pupils. He took his composition studies seriously, apparently too seriously for Haydn, who nicknamed his impatient pupil ‘The Great Mogul’. But the two remained on good terms after Beethoven moved to other teachers.

There were no regular public concerts in Vienna. A musician might organise a subscription series, but Mozart had tried that and come to grief. The only public orchestral concerts were presented several times a year in the Burgtheater for charity, and it was at one of these in March 1795 in aid of musicians’ widows that Beethoven made his Viennese debut as composer-pianist, playing his brand-new Concerto in B flat. It was his first concerto, apart from a very early work that survives only incomplete, though it was later labelled No.2 because it was published after the Concerto in C.

At this period Beethoven was composing in basically the classical style developed by Haydn and Mozart; the form and vocabulary of this concerto were familiar to the audience. But the young Beethoven’s innovatory ways with dynamic contrast, unexpected key changes and displaced accents were unsettling. Juxtaposition of opposites is the salient feature of this concerto; the abrupt gesture is set beside the conciliatory phrase, liveliness is contrasted with contemplation, angularity with smoothness.

The two-sided character of the opening bars proposes the principle, and the rest of the orchestral introduction confirms it. The pianist enters with a new theme developed from the opening material. Then a run up the keyboard heralds belatedly the second subject proper on violins and piano in turn. After a development concerned largely with the first subject the themes are recapitulated in due order, leading to the soloist’s cadenza and a brief coda.

A calm melody begins the Adagio, but there are fierce interruptions to come. The piano elaborates the theme introduced by the orchestra, then piano and orchestra share a second theme reminiscent of The Magic Flute, an opera which had greatly impressed Beethoven. The orchestra insists on restoring the initial theme, but the piano relaxes the tension with delicate tracery, and at the end offers a brief recitative marked ‘with great expression’.

For finale Beethoven offers a bouncing six-eight rondo with numerous accents in unexpected places. Between the appearances of the rondo theme come two episodes, the first a blithe little tune and the second a more insistent melody. Before the orchestra can get in with the final statement of the rondo theme the piano anticipates it in the altogether unexpected key of G major and in an altered rhythm. It is a joke worthy of a Haydn finale, and so is the pretence of running out of steam just before the close.

Eric Mason

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