Beethoven’s concerto in Eb Major, Opus 73 “The Emperor” is, along with the Tchaikovsky Bb minor (the second most famous four notes in music) and the Grieg A minor concerto, among the most well-known and beloved piano concertos in the literature. It’s a remarkable combination of power, exuberance, sensitivity, and virtuosity. It also has some unusual formal features. For instance, it begins with majestic orchestral chords outlining music’s most basic chord progression, I – IV – V – I. Between these mighty statements, the piano’s wildly virtuosic expressions of these chords lead to the next chord. There is a definite cadenza-like feel to these interpolations. Cadenzas were traditionally placed near the end of the movement in Beethoven’s time. It must have ruffled a few musical feathers back when listeners first heard this. It wasn’t until later in the Romantic period when such liberties with the form of music were taken, a good example being the placement of the cadenza of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in the middle of the movement. Also, Beethoven wrote these “cadenzas” out whereas soloists typically improvised their own.
Another jolt to the very early 19th century listener, it’s being composed in 1809, must have been the key of the second movement – B Major. He moved from 3 flats to 5 sharps in the key signatures, a relationship of a major third, not seen too often in classical period music. I can think of one other right now, Haydn Opus 76 #5 in D Major where the slow movement is a major third away in F# Major. These are relationships that one doesn’t hear with regularity until the full-blown romantic period. Think Schubert. (Ah Schubert!) Such a gentle comforting melody with piano embroidery entwined! I love the recapitulation of the theme with the wonderful orchestration of flute, clarinet, and bassoon singing the tune with the strings providing a soothing rocking accompaniment. The movement cadences in B and the simply slithers down a half step to Bb. The piano quietly and slowly foreshadows the theme of the last movement and then virtually explodes with abandon and exuberance into one of the greatest finales in the piano concerto literature.
I thought it would be interesting to include performances from three different generations. First, the great Arthur Rubenstein whose recording is the favorite of many to this day.
Next the great Glenn Gould
And lastly Maurizio Pollini