by Jeff Counts
Instrumentation: flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings
Duration: 34 minutes in three movements.
THE COMPOSER – LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN (1770-1827) – It is a common observation that throughout his life Beethoven’s compositional output was defined by alternating periods of dearth and plenty. 1806 was one of the good years, spawning a legendary clutch of works that included the Rasumovsky Quartets, the “Appassionata” Sonata, the 4th Symphony and the Violin Concerto. Reward for his efforts was momentarily abundant too with new commissions and a new London publishing deal.
THE HISTORY – Beethoven, in keeping with another typical practice during his career, combined the premieres of new works on a single concert in 1807. A private event, given in March of that year at the Vienna palace of Prince Franz Joseph von Lobkowitz, included not only the new 4th Symphony but also the more recent 4th Piano Concerto and the Coriolon Overture. Little was written about the initial reception of these particular premieres but, for the most part, all of Beethoven’s 1807 offerings were well-received and did much to advance his international standing. The first public performance of the 4th Concerto occurred in December of 1808 on that famously under-heated and under-rehearsed marathon concert that also featured the 5th and 6th Symphonies, the Choral Fantasy and parts of the Mass in C. As trying as the circumstances were for both players and listeners, all present agreed that Beethoven’s reading of the concerto was a thrilling highlight. It would be the last time Beethoven would appear as a concerto soloist, a finality made more poignant by the fact that the limits his deafness put on his performing ability would cause him to abandon concerto composition entirely a few years later. The 4th was the grandest of Beethoven’s piano concerti to that point, at least in terms of formal design, but it was also his most subtly nuanced. More poetry than prose, the 4th Concerto opened with a softly voiced rhythmic pre-echo of the 5th Symphony. Beethoven broke convention by opening with the piano alone in place of the standard orchestral introduction. This interesting strategy was quite rare at the time and has remained so since.
THE WORLD – 1807 also saw the passing of the Embargo Act in the U.S., the deposing of Ottoman Emperor Selim III and the signing of the Peace of Tilsit, which joined former enemies France and Russia against Great Britain.
THE CONNECTION – Beethoven’s 4th Piano Concerto was last heard on a Masterworks concert back in 2008. Keith Lockhart conducted and Garrick Ohlsson was soloist.