Kudos in spades to the administrators of the Eastern Music Festival who came up with the imaginative pairing of a survey of three concertos of Ludwig van Beethoven, all played by the same pianist, while using each of the Festival’s three full-sized orchestras. This opening weekend concert in Dana Auditorium, on the bucolic Guilford College campus, found in succession both all-student Young Artists Orchestras (normally heard on Thursdays and Fridays) followed by the all-faculty, professional Festival Orchestra. Pianist William Wolfram had both the stamina and mastery of style to bring off this rare survey of Beethoven’s creative growth.
Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in C, Op. 15, was actually his real “second,” having been composed in 1795. His Op. 19 (labeled his Piano Concerto No. 2, but actually his first) had been written in1790 but was not given its final form until 1801. The C major concerto was published first because it’s more brilliant scoring would give him the greater bang with its then extraordinary length, rousing orchestral style, and challenging keyboard writing. Several features reflect the composer’s debt to Mozart, such as having the soloist enter with a completely new idea from the theme used in the long orchestral introduction, or his use of a seven-part rondo like his teacher Haydn. Beethoven’s toying with unexpected changes of key must have seemed to his contemporaries as avant garde as the late Romantic composers’ straining with tonality. The composer makes marvelously expressive use of p to ppp dynamics in intimate passages in contrast to bold and brassy “sit-up-and-take-notice” sections. All three concertos are in three movements.
Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37, began as sketches in 1796 but most of the work took place in 1800. It was premiered on April 5, 1803 with the composer as soloist. There’s a wonderful account of this premiere from the young conductor Ignaz von Seyfried who had been drafted to turn the pages of the composer’s piano score. He “saw nothing but empty leaves; at the most, on one page or another a few Egyptian hieroglyphs wholly unintelligible to me…to serve as cues for him.” Beethoven’s secret glance cued his page turner and the composer was much amused by his turner’s discomfort! Many regard the Third Concerto as the composer’s first major stylistic advance, casting off earlier resemblances to Mozart and Haydn. The work is a tighter composition, much more lean and spare, as compared to Op. 15 with its long orchestral introduction. The first movement, “Allegro con brio,” is fiery and characterized with bold octaves and strongly profiled rhythms. The second "Largo" movement is set in the key of E which helps give it an enchanting atmosphere. Sensuous melodies and dialogues between piano and woodwinds are highlights. The rousing “Rondo” finale features puns, a fugal interlude, and more playing with scales.
Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5, the "Emperor," with its blustery and brilliant scoring, is a crowd pleaser, but the musical depth of his Piano Concerto No. 4 in G, Op. 58, is nearly infinite. It was begun in 1805, finished in 1806, and publicly premiered in 1808. It is sometimes nicknamed “Orpheus,” making an allusion to the mythic hero’s special pleading for his wife’s return from the Underworld. This is Beethoven at his most theatrical. Against all contemporary expectation, it opens with a brief five-measure phrase in G for piano alone followed by the orchestra’s hushed and harmonically remote entrance in B. The composer revels with dynamics, keys, and rhythm. The heart-rending slow second movement, with its almost operatic pleading by the piano to the brusque orchestra, was compared with Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice. My favorite part is the magical transition, a single pizzicato and a single diminished chord, from the slow movement to the magisterial finale.
Faculty pianist William Wolfram was simply magnificent as soloist, bringing out Beethoven’s growing musical depth and conveying the ever-evolving style. His palette of color and expressive use of dynamics were remarkable as was his articulation in fast passages. All three concertos were played from memory.
Music director Gerard Schwarz had prepared all three orchestras very well, gauging the balance between his orchestras and his soloist perfectly while providing accompaniment that truly fitted like a glove. No apologies were needed for the first Young Artist Orchestra's Op. 15! Each section played with excellent unity. Strings produced a full, warm tone, woodwinds were very strong, the important bassoon parts came across very well, and the horns were wonderful. The second Young Artists Orchestra turned in a good over-all performance of the Op. 37; strings were fine but there were a few ensemble blemishes, for example near the end of the slow movement. The Festival Orchestra was superb as has become usual. There is relatively little personnel turnover between seasons but I never cease to be amazed at how fast professionals can “gel” into a cohesive orchestra. Bravo to everyone involved for a truly memorable, unique concert.