Beethoven Piano Concertos

As I get ready to perform the Five Beethoven Concertos with Maestro Theodore Kuchar and the Fresno Philharmonic on March 13, 14, and 15, I find myself more and more in awe of this Music. It’s not that I realize only now how great these pieces are. It’s just that, as I have them all in my fingers, mind, heart, and soul, I feel I am better able to contemplate them in their totality.

From first to last, the Five Concertos extend across roughly 16 years of Beethoven’s life, from 1795 to 1811, and that’s only considering the publication years. In reality, the first of these Concertos, the Bb Major, Op.19, was composed likely between 1787 and 1789, but published after the C Major, Op.15. At that point, Beethoven had already used all the numbers in his catalogue for other compositions, and was forced to assign to it the Opus number 19, thus making it his “Second”.

Every single one of these Concertos is an absolute masterpiece. As a set, they show the evolution of Beethoven’s language, and the explosion of his creative powers which propelled him forward, blazing new paths in a way that goes above and beyond any classification. I find it very difficult to say, for instance, that his Concertos NN. 3, 4 and 5 are “classical”. Beethoven cannot really be categorized, if not maybe in his very early output.

In this amazing journey through the Five Concertos, I hear Beethoven’s quest as an individual to harness the Universal, and crystallize it into perfect musical structures. The impact of these Concertos goes well beyond the music world. They stand as eternal proof of the greatness that humans can attain, transcending their inherent flaws.

Here is an archival recording of a live performance of the “Emperor” Concerto, Op.73. It is from 2010. I played it (with all my inherent flaws) with the North Carolina Symphony under the baton of Maestro Grant Llewellyn, a wonderful musician, and one of my favorite musical partners. This Concerto truly is regal. Beethoven did not suggest the title, though. It was Johann Baptist Cramer who dubbed it the “Emperor” when he published it in England. Very fitting, don’t you think?

 

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Shostakovich First Piano Concerto

“Music is a means capable of expressing dark dramatism and pure rapture, suffering and ecstasy, fiery and cold fury, melancholy and wild merriment-and the subtlest nuances and interplay of these feelings which words are powerless to express and which are unattainable in painting and sculpture.”

- Dmitri Shostakovich

 

It seems to me that the above quote applies perfectly to the First Piano Concerto of Shostakovich, a beautiful piece for Piano, Trumpet, and String Orchestra. A few years ago I had the privilege of performing it with the fabulous Alison Balsom, the Colorado Symphony, and conductor Edward Gardner. It was wonderful to share the stage and make music with such incredible artists.

Few composers can make us stare into the darkness, and show us that, though repulsive, it has a comical side. I believe that in his First Piano Concerto, as in many other works, Shostakovich really shows us the meaning of the word “grotesque“.

 

 

 

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Van Cliburn

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Two years. It’s already been that long since our beloved Van Cliburn passed away. Aside from the geopolitical implications of his victory in the 1958 Tchaikovsky competition, which made him an American hero, why is Van Cliburn one of the greatest pianists of all time? After all, there are many others who played more concerts, made more records, had longer careers, a larger repertoire…

For me, the answer is simple. From the first time I heard his sound, I felt a real human being was speaking to me, baring his soul without mannerisms or sentimentality. A sense of purity, nobility, the perfect mix of the emotional and the rational pervaded his every phrase. I did not know much about him then, I did not even know what he looked like. Yet, when I met him many years later, he was exactly as his sound had told me he would be. A great human being who also happened to be a fantastic pianist.