I - Allegro
II - Adagio un poco mosso
III - Rondo. Allegro
Beethoven’s E-flat Concerto, dating from 1809, was his last, a fact usually related to his growing deafness and his withdrawal from public performance. Friedrich Schneider first played the work in Leipzig in 1811 and it was left for Beethoven’s pupil Carl Czerny to introduce it to Vienna the following year. As with the earlier Violin Concerto the splendour of the work seemed to pass unnoticed, though posterity has made ample amends. in London J.B. Cramer, himself a pioneer in piano technique, nicknamed the E flat Concerto the ‘Emperor’. The title fits the majesty of the music but might not have been welcomed by a composer who had scorned the ambitions of Napoleon a few years before.
Sketches fro the concerto followed closely on those for the Choral Fantasy, op. 80, which also involves an important solo part. In fact the long cadenwa-like introduction to the Fantasy has some bearing on the opening of the concerto, which establishes the pianist in no uncertain terms before settling down to its grand procession of orchestral material. Beethoven’s preceding piano concerto, no. 4 in G major, had also given the first word to the soloist though in a wholly different manner. Wherhead that work had thrived on lyrical warmth, persuasion, and restrained brilliance, Beethoven now sought a more overtly triumphant mood and more vociferous contrasts. Both these concertos were to enjoy the increased range of a six-octave keyboard, and the E flat still balanced its grander sonorities with the most delicate treatment of the higher registers.
The soloist’s initial display of strength, with basic arpeggios and scale-figures used in a wholly arresting manner, set the orchestra a kind of challenging reverse. The martial splendour of their succeeding exposition, evolving so much from the figures of the first subject, is however firmly rooted in the home-key. This opening stability, vitally and traditionally ‘Classical’, makes the soloist’s first quiet move to other regions a dramatic event. One may write in technical terms of the first movement’s wide-ranging key-scheme, of Neapolitan relations and enharmonic modulations, and of the orchestra’s peremptory returns to the dominant or tonic. But the layman will still respond to the range of colour and emotion that these moves convey. Two obvious features are the chromatic scales with which the pianist re-enters and departs from the scene and the celebrated exchange of stormy octaves between piano and strings in mid-movement. An important innovation was the abolition of the usual cadenza in favour of a brief written-in flourish. No virtuoso could complain at this — in view of the brilliant opening (recalled in the recapitulation) and the continued domination of the piano to the very end of the movement.
Beethoven sketched a slow movement theme in C major before setting on B major for the Adagio. The soloist’s quiet reflections on an orchestral theme of great beauty and serenity set a pattern for many concertos of the Romantic period, whether the nationalist Grieg or the Classically-minded Brahms, and the celeste-like treatment of the piano towards the end was greatly admired by Berlioz. The key of B major not only offered links with first-movement events but afforded a dramatic return, via B flat to E flat, for the breaking-in of the finale. Here the rondo-theme is hinted at before being taken up vigorously, and any old-fashioned complaints about Beethoven’s reliance on tonic and dominant harmony are rebuked by the athletic energy of its cross-rhythms and the range of keys and treatments in the middle episode. A further moment of quiet reflection occurs in the piano-and-drum duet before the final run-up. How could such brilliant contrasts have failed to impress that Viennese audience in 1812?