Soloist: Alexei Volodin
The Mariinsky Orchestra
Conductor: Daniel Raiskin
All of Ludwig van Beethoven’s piano concerti
Alexei Volodin speaking about his musical marathon
When I received an invitation from Valery Gergiev to perform all five of Beethoven’s piano concerti I naturally accepted it with pleasure – what could be a greater joy for a pianist? Of course, such a project demands particular staying power and prowess from performers, but Beethoven’s music itself and the unique artistic world of each of the concerti will, I hope, inspire us throughout the course of the evening.
I’ve performed all five concerti in a row several times before, but normally over two or three evenings. All five in one evening – this’ll be a first for me!
My partner on this occasion will be Daniel Raiskin, a wonderful musician and conductor with whom I have frequently performed in various cities and countries.
Despite the exceptional length and complexity of the evening, not for nothing being hailed as a marathon, it is not our aim to set some kind of record; quite the reverse, we are trying to let ourselves be guided by purely artistic principles.
I would like to express my personal thanks to everyone who comes to this concert, and to those who listen to the Fifth Concerto to the end I extend my gratitude twofold!
Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy.
Music ought to strike fire from the soul of man.
Music is a human need.
Ludwig van Beethoven
Individually, each of the above epigraphs could belong to separate composers – an erudite thinker, a passionate warrior and tribune, a confirmed democratic artist. Taken together, however, in the mind’s eye they conjure up the multifaceted image of one brilliant creator. The symphonies and instrumental concerti of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827) form a timeless and eternal book that is discovered each and every time anew.
In his hometown of Bonn, the twelve-year-old Beethoven was already considered a brilliant pianist. But his fellow Germans – and later refined Viennese audiences – were most amazed by the composer’s skill in improvisation. Beethoven’s talent as a pianist initially eclipsed that of his fame as a composer. It comes as no surprise that, from his youngest years, works for piano took precedence in the catalogue of the composer’s works. Among these is his early Piano Concerto in E Flat Major (1784), not allotted an opus number yet included in the composer’s Complete Works. The fourteen-year-old composer performed it at the Court of the Prince-Elector in Bonn.
Casting off his first “attempts of the pen”, Beethoven commenced a review of his concerti beginning with Piano Concerto No 1 in C Major which was composed in 1795–1796 (and published in March 1801). It transpired that his review was not entirely precise: Piano Concerto No 2 in B Flat Major was composed in 1794–1795, i.e. prior to the First, and it was only published ten months afterwards – in December 1801. Both concerti were revised by Beethoven for a performance in Prague in 1798 (the Second Concerto was premiered in Vienna in March 1795 and the First, in all probability, in Prague in 1798).
At that time, the piano was constantly being perfected: the instrument had replaced the harpsichord. To a great extent, virtuoso pianists had inherited the performing style that gave preference to pure, partite and measured sound. Beethoven stated that “the piano can sing, too, if the performer can feel,” adding that “the movements of the fingers should not be heard, it should be played as if a bow were passing over the strings.” Fate had it that Beethoven once had to illustrate his point. The noble lyricism of his brilliant Violin Concerto had not been well received by contemporaries, and the despondent composer produced a solo version – for the piano. Apropos, this arrangement with the composer’s own piano cadenzas (sometimes even known as the Sixth Concerto) did not become a repertoire piece: the Violin Concerto, of course, with time won the favour of the composer’s successors.
The so-called “triple” concerto – the Concerto for Piano, Violin and Cello – was not a success at its only performance during Beethoven’s lifetime. And that was no exception; audiences who had applauded Beethoven the improviser and pianist, the performer of his own works, immediately forgot their exuberance – his creative genius and pianism was just so far ahead of its time. One staggering example is that while the composer was still living there was a single public performance (meaning in a concert hall) of Beethoven’s Twenty-Eighth Sonata! Today, this is hard to believe. On the other hand, his Fantasia for Piano, Chorus and Orchestra created a powerful impression on contemporaries – for all we know this may be why Beethoven here consolidated the style and character of his piano improvisations so beloved by the Viennese. For us, however, the Fantasia is important as a prototype of the choral finale of the Ninth Symphony.
Picking up the baton from Haydn and Mozart, Beethoven led a veritable revolution in the genres of the symphony and the instrumental concerto. “Starting with Beethoven there is no new music that does not have an internal programme,” Gustav Mahler noted one century later of the contribution of the composer who had first imbued the symphony with the breath of universal ideas. Beginning with Beethoven’s Third (Eroica) and Fifth Symphonies, secular music won a hitherto unknown social status and produced a never before seen reaction. Beethoven’s symphonies took on philosophical concepts: in terms of the scale of the grandiose generalisations they were comparable to the great novels and tragedies, and with the appearance of public concert halls they could compete with Sunday masses in church. And such resonant emblems as the “theme of destiny” from the Fifth or the choral finale from the Ninth emerged as unique musical aphorisms – “winged melodies” for millions of listeners all over the world. It was not by chance that Beethoven’s brilliant interpretation of Schiller’s An die Freude (Ode to Joy) is the official anthem of the European Union – a united Europe.
Beethoven travelled the same reformer’s path as a composer of instrumental concerti. If the first two piano concerti may be said to belong to the traditions of Haydn and Mozart (although here too “young blood plays its part” and one can hear the approach of a new century) then in the Third Concerto in C Minor (1800) the titanic scale of Beethoven’s genius shines through with unusual fullness. Both the dramatic dialogue of the soloist and the orchestra in Piano Concerto No 4 in G Major (1805–1806) and the heroic lift in radiant E Flat Major in the Fifth (1808–1809) bear witness to his endeavour to “symphonise” the concerto genre that would be taken up in the latter half of the 19th century and lead to new masterpieces in the 20th century. In Beethoven’s music the symphony and the instrumental concerto (essentially the sinfonia concertante, a new genre established by the composer) go hand in hand.