Is it your birthday today by any chance? Yes? Wonderful. I have a gift for you – a beautiful piano concerto written by Ludwig van Beethoven. It is full of vitality and enthusiasm, and I hope it will colour your day just like a bouquet of flowers. Happy Birthday! If today it is not your birthday, it doesn’t matter. I wish you an enthusiastic day anyway, and hopefully Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 “Emperor” in E flat major, Op. 73 will make you feel like a king. Let’s stay modest here.
Starting on a triad
The German musicologist Andreas Krause, contributor to the 628 pages strong “Beethoven Handbuch” (Beethoven handbook), believes that this piano concerto, the last one that Beethoven finished, is the sum of his wisdom in this discipline. I believe it is an outstanding piece. The first bars of the first movement already give the listener an idea of the grandeur of this piece. The allegro is introduced by an unconventional E flat major triad played by the orchestra, immediately followed by a piano solo figure, the triad again. With a fanfare-like theme for the orchestra the movement gains momentum, but Beethoven soon balances is with a delicate, wavering figure played by the strings. These elements keep coming back throughout the other movements in multiple variations.
A natural flow of music figures
The piece is written in a very strict sonata form: a carefully constructed exposition, development and recapitulation of the two themes for both the soloist and the orchestra. And yet it has nothing mechanical or artificial. Harmony is maintained throughout the piece, that natural flow of succeeding musical figures is a delight, while the variations of the figures testify of the inventiveness of the composer. The contrasts between the parts make it interesting, the finely tuned balance between the part makes it an overall fantastic musical experience.
Beethoven wrote it between 1808 and 1809 and dedicated it to his pupil and patron, the Archduke Rudolph. The anglophone world has coined the sobriquet “Emperor”, which has no tradition in Germany or Austria. Most likely Beethoven would not have approved it since he had been greatly disappointed by the ruling emperor at the time, Napoleon Bonaparte. True, some figures may recall military fanfares, but what impresses me most are the subtle passages, where the pianist can show his talent and the less “noisy” parts played by the orchestra. Infinite delicateness… The massive tutti parts merely form a contrast for the sensitive melodies.
Me and my obsessions
The piece has become somewhat of an obsession of mine like Beethoven’s Violin Concerto Op. 61, Schubert’s Sonata for Arpeggione and Piano, D. 821 and Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for String Orchestra, Op. 44. I can listen to these pieces over and over again and the emotions they set free overwhelm me time and again. If you would like to recreate this experience I suggest the recording of the London Symphony Orchestra under Sir Colin Davis and Evgeny Kissin as the soloist. But I would even more recommend the recording by the Staatskapelle Dresden and the pianist Hélène Grimaud.
© Charles Thibo