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An emerging giant: The power of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto

How fast 250 years goes by, and today everybody’s going nuts over the anniversary of Beethoven’s birth. If you haven’t been hit over the head by a symphony or sonata by Ludwig lately, you’d have to be living in a cave. The music world, including TFO, can’t play enough Beethoven in 2020, and that’s a good thing, considering how well his music continues to grab our modern ears.

This weekend, TFO brings out one of the first works in which Beethoven takes on the heroic ideal, his Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 37, performed by returning pianist Gilles Vonsattel. The orchestra has performed it many times over the years, and I clearly remember talking to guest soloist Byron Janis before his gig in the early 1980s at McKay Auditorium at the University of Tampa. I asked him what stands out most about the third of Beethoven’s five keyboard concertos, and he wasted no time sharing his thoughts on a work of such rumble and wonder.

“It’s really the first concerto where Beethoven shakes his fist at the world,’’ he said during an interview published in the Tampa Tribune. “It’s when he leaves Mozart behind, and becomes Beethoven.’’

Those words stuck. Here is music of an emerging giant, his journey before him as he steps from his youthful Viennese period into uncharted territory of a nascent romantic era. It also would reveal much about Beethoven’s power in creating mood through key relationships and how he used it as a vehicle to distance himself from the past. This choice of key – the same as his iconic Symphony No. 5 – plays a part in the concerto’s endearing quality.

“Beethoven in C minor has come to symbolize his artistic character,’’ writes pianist Charles Rosen, author of Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas: A Short Companion. “In every case, it reveals Beethoven as a Hero. C minor does not show Beethoven at his most subtle, but it does give him to us in his most extrovert form, where he seems to be most impatient of any compromise.’’

For all its originality, the work mirrors Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24, also in the key of C minor, and the similarities are no coincidence. But Beethoven – ever the protagonist of change – is more symphonic; his piano more virtuosic; his development more integrated, complex, and dramatic. With Mozart, soloist and orchestra cooperate. With Beethoven, they compete.

If he inherited the concerto from his classical predecessor, Beethoven made it his own. The Third ushered in a Romantic-era voice, replacing the polite with the imposing and setting the stage for the virtuoso soloist. A tumultuous first movement and boisterous finale flank an exquisite largo in E major, what the Allegmeine Musikalische Zeitung in 1805 described as “one of the most expressive and richly sensitive instrumental pieces ever written.’’ As he did later in his Fifth Symphony, Beethoven resolved all tension in the end, as the storm of C minor gives way to the sunlight of C major.

What might be most remarkable about the Third Piano Concerto is the context in which it was composed. By 1800, the 30-year-old Beethoven began to notice problems with his hearing. Experts today believe he suffered from degeneration of the auditory nerve, which at the time was progressive and incurable. In 1801, realizing his condition was both serious (and particularly cruel, given his art), he wrote to a friend:

“I must confess that I am living a miserable life. For almost two years I have ceased to attend any social functions, just because I find it impossible to say to people: I am deaf. If I had any other profession it would be easier, but in my profession it is a terrible handicap.’’

Whether encroaching deafness actually encouraged Beethoven is anyone’s guess, but he certainly faced adversity head-on through his work, at one point writing, “I will seize Fate by the throat; it shall certainly not crush me completely.’’

If such exalted language parallels his music, it might be found in the opening moments of this tension-filled concerto – and the shaking fist of an emerging giant in music.

Tampa Bay Times Masterworks
Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3
In partnership with the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg
Michael Francis, conductor
Gilles Vonsattel, piano
Orlando Jacinto Garcia: the impending silence (world premiere)
Rimsky-Korsakov: Golden Cockerel Intro/Wedding March
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 3
Stravinsky: Pulcinella (Ballet in One Act)
Fri, Jan 17, 8 pm, Straz Center, Morsani
Sat, Jan 18, 8 pm, Mahaffey Theater
Sun, Jan 19, 2 pm, Mahaffey Theater – Matinee 
Tickets are $18-$48
Kids and teens get in free with Classical Kids tickets, available in advance.
Join Michael Francis for the Pre-concert Conversation 1 hour prior

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. I am a piano teacher and I love this article. It is very helpful to me as an educator of young people who are learning the piano. The piece that you have chosen is great, but there are so many more pieces that can be played by students without becoming bored or frustrated with repetition.

  2. David

    The interpretation of the Beethoven Third Piano Concerto in Do minor Recorded in DG with soloist: Arthuro Michelangeli Benetti is quite extraordinary!

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