Even in his young years, Beethoven, when performing as a pianist, stunned audiences with the innovative nature of his performing style, bravery and the expressiveness of his improvisations. In 1787, during a brief stay in Vienna, he visited Mozart and drew the latter’s admiration with his art. When he ultimately settled permanently in the Austrian capital, Beethoven won widespread acclaim, appearing in the luxurious townhouses of philanthropic aristocrats and at concerts and “academies” – as composers’ evenings with varied programmes were known, where the composer introduced audiences to his latest works. The academy also provided a demonstration of the composer’s performing skills: he was to perform as a soloist in a concert work and improvise on a given theme. Thus emerged Beethoven’s concerti: the piano concerti were composed by him for his own academies, the violin concerti for renowned virtuoso Franz Clement (as well as these, the composer’s concerto legacy also includes the Fantasia for Piano, Chorus and Orchestra and Triple Concerto for Piano, Violin and Cello with Orchestra).
Beethoven’s piano concerti opened a new age in the history of the genre. The composer elevated the concerto to the level of the symphony and underlined the leading role played by the soloist, in each and every case uniquely and inimitably rethinking the comparison between the solo part and the orchestra. Forming a unique “portrait” of Beethoven at a specific stage in his life, the concerti give us the wonderful opportunity to follow the evolution of the composer’s creative style. And so, in the first two concerti – in C Major, and particularly in B Flat Major, which in terms of the chronology of composition and performance preceded the former – there is still a clear and obvious link to concerto works by Mozart and Haydn. But through the normal shading of a classical concerto, here the image of Beethoven himself can be distinguished: we cannot but notice the new scale of the entire composition, the new qualities of the dynamism of sound, the energy of development and expression. The composer’s inventiveness is amazing in the finale of the first concerto, where we distinctly hear Beethoven’s sheer “impertinence”, for example the A Minor theme being developed. This decisive break was heralded with the Third Concerto in C Minor. Beethoven presented a new concept of concert music – the juxtaposition of the soloist with the orchestra taking on a new, dramatic interpretation and serving as an expression of the content, at variance with itself. According to Alfred Cortot, “the piano grows before the orchestra like a rival in a heroic battle; the sound it has to hand is just as imperious, its development just as powerful, as Beethoven’s interpretation of the orchestral mass.” In the two subsequent concerti, the priority of the soloist is denoted in yet stronger relief style thanks to the unusual opening: instead of a traditional orchestral exposition, the Fourth Concerto in G Major opens with a piano solo, and the Fifth, in E Flat Major, with a virtuoso cadenza that grows from just one chord of the orchestra. The Concerto in G Major stands out for its special, lyrical feel, while the grandiose Fifth was given the title of “Kaiser” (“The Emperor”) even during the composer’s lifetime. Dedicated to Archduke Rudolf – archbishop, direct descendant of the Hapsburg dynasty, military captain and a wonderful musician – it surpassed anything and everything that had thus far been composed for piano solo thanks to the capaciousness of its content, the intensity of the music’s heroic flavour, the hitherto unknown power, energy and virtuoso scale of the solo part.
The Violin Concerto had an interesting fate. One of Beethoven’s most inspirational works, the Concerto was not a success during the composer’s lifetime. It was said that Beethoven had been putting the finishing touches to the part of the violin for such a long time that the soloist had no time to learn it, and at the performance he was essentially sight-reading. Embittered by the failure of the premiere, Beethoven rearranged the violin part for piano at Clement’s advice – and the work was thus transformed… into Piano Concerto No 6. In 1844 Mendelssohn’s initiative restored life to the original version, and the young, thirteen-year-old virtuoso Joseph Joachim dazzled in the solo role. Ever since, Beethoven’s concerto has been one of the most important works in the violin concerto repertoire.