Beethoven's music: John Suchet explores the Piano Concertos

11 March 2013, 15:59 | Updated: 4 April 2016, 12:38

Beethoven completed five Piano Concertos in under 20 years, but from the age of 38 he would never finish one again as his deafness stopped him from performing, writes John Suchet.

Five completed Piano Concertos, spanning a period from when Beethoven was around 19 or 20 to when he was just 38. Then, full stop. Well, almost. He started a sixth six years later, but abandoned it. So, no completed piano concerto for the final 18 years of his life.

And this was a composer who, like Mozart, had stunned audiences and earned considerable amounts of money by composing fiendishly difficult piano concertos and performing them effortlessly in concert.

Almost effortlessly, in Beethoven’s case. At the first performance of the Third, he had not had time to write out the piano part in full. He asked Ignaz Seyfried to turn for him. The hapless Seyfried said later the markings on the manuscript, far from being musical notation, were more like Egyptian hieroglyphics, intelligible only to Beethoven himself. He was unable to read them, relying on Beethoven to dig him in the ribs when he wanted the page turned.

At the premier of the Fourth, two boys stood by the piano holding candles. Beethoven leapt up at one point, knocking the candles to the floor. (No wonder audiences flocked to Beethoven’s concerts: they never knew what was going to happen next.)

So why did he suddenly stop writing piano concertos? We do not know for certain, but the answer is pretty obvious. His deafness took hold, and he could no longer trust himself to hear the orchestra properly. The dreadful realisation had dawned that he could no longer perform his own concertos in public.

Piano Concertos no.1, 2 and 3

One feature of the Piano Concertos no.1, 2 and 3 immediately strikes even the most casual listener. They all begin with a lengthy orchestral introduction, before the piano enters – and when it does it is always solo and with a new theme (in the Third, a set of scales). Beethoven has grabbed your attention from the start.

Piano Concerto no.4

In Piano Concerto no.4 he turns this on its head. The piano begins alone! It is a gentle, turning theme of just five bars, and it sets the tone for the whole movement. The second movement, where piano and orchestra seem to inhabit different worlds, like a warring married couple – angry, sweet, petulant – is quite frankly 21st century music. It is light years ahead of its time. The same is true of the whole work. My favourite.

Piano Concerto no.5, the Emperor

Piano Concerto no.5, the Emperor, is by far the best known because of the sheer virtuosity it demands. Once again the opening is unique. Accompanied by chords from the orchestra, the soloist has to execute massive runs – before he or she has had time to hear the sound of the instrument, or the orchestra, or gauge the tempo the conductor has set, or, most importantly, gauge the mood of the audience.

The middle movement is ethereal, all the more so because Beethoven gives the beautiful theme almost entirely to the orchestra, with the piano accompanying – the reverse of what you would expect. The syncopations of the final movement are admired by jazz musicians and classical musicians alike.

There is a false entry for the piano to the second movement of the Emperor (similar to the false horn entry in the first movement of the Eroica Symphony) – an extra (grace) note that you do not expect to be there. 

At a concert in London featuring the virtuoso Alfred Brendel, the critic of the Times wrote that Brendel had fluffed the entry, playing one note too many. Brendel wrote to the paper, pointing out that he had played it exactly as Beethoven had written it.