Piano Concerto Winners
Ludwig van Beethoven, Overture to Egmont
The Egmont Overture is part of the suite of incidental music that Beethoven wrote for an 1810 performance of Goethe’s play. Beethoven was inspired by the story of County Egmont, a sixteenth-century Flemish aristocrat whose arrest and execution sparked an uprising against his homeland’s Spanish occupiers. The composer’s consistent commitment to heroism, self-sacrifice, and the struggle for liberty (as in the Eroica symphony and Fidelio) made the play an appealing subject, and his overture, four interludes, two songs, and several other pieces for the production are filled with inspired vitality. Beethoven wrote to Goethe, his literary idol, in 1811, and received a courteous (if unenthusiastic) reply, in which the writer noted that he had heard the composer’s music “spoken of with praise by several.” The overture is in three parts: a slow, F minor sarabande with repeated contrasts between loud and soft; the main body of the piece, an allegro in triple time with three complementary themes; and a heroic major-key coda in duple time, with a tremendous final climax.
Ludwig van Beethoven, Piano Concerto No. 1
Though Beethoven wrote tonight’s Piano Concerto in C after his Piano Concerto in B-flat (Op. 19), it was published earlier, and is thus designated as No. 1. He began work on the piece in 1793, and by 1795 had drafter or sketched all three movements. The date of the first performance is unclear, but Beethoven’s friend Dr. Wegeler recounted an anecdote from late 1795 or early 1796 in which, at a rehearsal in the composer’s rooms in the home of Prince Carl Lichnowsky, the piano was so out of tune with the instruments at hand that Beethoven played the entire concerto transposed up a half-step, in C-sharp! He performed the work publically in 1796, 1798, and 1800, and wrote the surviving autograph the year of the latest performance. In 1801, having finished with the concerto as a vehicle for public performance, Beethoven arranged its publication, along with three dramatically different cadenzas. In the tradition of Haydn and Mozart, this C major concerto includes trumpet and timpani (unlike the B-flat major No. 2, which omits them, as well as the clarinets). The key and the instruments were traditionally associated with music for military band, and the first and third themes of the first movement do indeed have a martial quality, with crisp, clean rhythms and melodic lines. The second theme, in contrast, is much more lyrical. Beethoven does not, of course, write purely forward-marching music; throughout the movement, listen for silences, sudden changes in dynamics, and unexpected harmonic moves.
Camille Saint-Saëns, Piano Concerto No. 2
Saint- Saëns wrote his Piano Concerto No. 2 at the impulsive invitation of his friend Anton Rubinstein, the great pianist, composer, and conductor. Saint-Saëns had conducted concerts with Rubinstein as soloist, and the Russian virtuoso wanted to reverse roles and make his Paris conducting debut. The performance was to be two-and-a-half weeks after Rubinstein’s request, at the Salle Playel, so Saint- Saëns composed the piece in a hurry, and was left with little practice time, leading to a less-than-satisfactory first performance in May, 1868. Within a few years, however, the work was enthusiastically embraced by both critics and the public. In a letter, Liszt wrote: “I must thank you again for your Second Concerto, which I enthusiastically applaud. The form is innovative and a most felicitous choice…. You showed the pianistic effects to good advantage without sacrificing any compositional principals.” The magisterial first movement is rather different from the playful second and third, having the feel of both a Baroque prelude (listen for the thunderous opening low G, followed by cascades of quick notes) and classical concerto form.
Alexander Borodin, In the Steppes of Central Asia
Borodin demonstrated a passion for science and music at a young age, and showed himself to be precociously talented in both fields. He became a medical doctor in 1858, at the age of twenty-five, having judiciously split his time between his scientific studies and the composition and performance of music. Appointed full professor of organic chemistry at the Academy of Medicine in St. Petersburg at the age of thirty-one, he continued working, teaching, and making and writing music for the rest of his life, calling himself a “Sunday composer.” Borodin wrote In the Steppes of Central Asia in 1880, to be performed as part of one of several tableaux vivants celebrating the jubilee of Czar Alexander II. The tableaux never came to fruition, but the piece was performed to great acclaim in April of that year, under the direction of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. The work portrays the intersection of Russians and Central Asians in the steppes of the Caucasus. The march-like first theme represents the Russians, and is followed by the Asians’ more “exotic” melody. The two melodies are, of course, combined in the end, representing harmoniousness between the two groups.
Sergei Rachmaninoff, Piano Concerto No. 2
Rachmaninoff achieved earlier and more consistent success as a pianist than as a composer, and in 1900, his work on his Piano Concerto No. 2 was interrupted by one of his all-too-frequent periods of crippling self-doubt about his compositional ability (as in the period after the catastrophic failure of First Symphony in 1897). After several months in seclusion, away from composing, he completed and performed the second and third movements in the fall of that year, receiving critical acclaim from the Moscow critics both for the piece and for his performance thereof. The premiere of the complete work took place in October, 1901, and was and tremendous and immediate hit. The now-familiar opening of the first movement was unusual for its time, with the piano alone, alternating pianissimo chords and deep, bell-like bass tones. Soon, however, the piano recedes while the orchestra introduces the unforgettable first theme, and the “solo” instrument spends much of the movement accompanying rather than leading the orchestra. That notwithstanding, the piece is both a tremendous challenge and great showcase for the soloist, who must balance musical sensitivity and collaboration with a high degree of virtuosity.