Yearning to Breathe Free
Ludwig van Beethoven: Egmont Overture; Piano Concerti Nos. 1 & 3
Murray Perahia (piano)
Wolfgang Sawallisch (conductor)
“…it is one thing to note connections…another to treat Beethoven’s work as a blunted attempt to rival his great predecessor…Beethoven revered these Mozart works, but we can understand his early masterpieces only by allowing them their own terms, in which they are seen to be independent.”
Robert Simpson, “Beethoven and the Concerto”
It seems a disservice to dismiss the early compositions of Beethoven as “Mozartian” (I do it myself) and it would be much more beneficial to concentrate on their innovations as well as their opening of the avenues leading to the creation and revelation of the composer’s own personal voice. The Januarian Piano Concerto # 1 (actually written after the #2) spends at least as much energy looking forward as backward. The most concrete example of this is the middle movement, an elegiac largo in the extremely soft key of A Flat Major that foreshadows the ”Pathetique” Sonata of three years later (even though its opus number precedes that of the concerto). Not only is the key the same, but the main theme begins similarly and evokes the mood of this revolutionary sonata which Weber would soon pronounce “unplayable”. The length and depth of the exposition in this movement far outpace that of any corresponding passage in Mozart and, although Beethoven was undoubtedly inspired by his elder’s passion for the newly introduced clarinet, the dialogue between this darkly colorful instrument and the keyboard represents a significant departure from Mozart’s groundbreaking sonorities. By the time that he composed his next concerto (#3), Beethoven was so confident of his place in music history and so cognizant of the impact of the new century (the piece was published in 1801) that he could courageously compose the slow movement in the “wrong” key (E instead of E Flat Major) with not just impunity but justifiable arrogance. Mozart may have been a servant but Beethoven would not permit this fate for himself.
There is a decided difference in attitude between these two concerti and it takes a true poet to communicate the disparate role of the soloist in each. Murray Perahia is such an artist and a collaboration with the superb Philadelphia Orchestra is an eagerly awaited event. Perahia and Sawallisch have just completed a traversal of all five concerti in celebration of the ensemble’s new concert hall and brought one portion of this festival to Carnegie last night. Even a stodgy reading of the Egmont (yes, it is possible to perform Beethoven in too Germanic a manner) didn’t dampen my enthusiasm for the works to come.
Since his teenaged years at Marlboro, Perahia has been known as a thinking man’s pianist, endowed with the rare ability to perceive the creative processes of composers. His thesis this evening seemed to be that the child is father to the man; he highlighted traces of the mature Beethoven in the early concerto, performing it in a more assertive manner than is generally acceptable. Supporting his case was the inclusion of a seldom played cadenza written over ten crucial years later and imbued with the new self-confidence of its auteur performer. Although interesting as an historical curiosity, this cadenza is jarringly out of place stylistically, its surprising length ruinous to the classical balance of the movement as a whole. Still, if anyone can sell this anachronistic ornament, it is Perahia. Athletic and supple, delicate and graceful, his pianism vaults him into the stratosphere of the immortals performing today. He is a rare citizen of Pollini country. The orchestra was greatly enlivened after the effects of too much sauerbraten in the overture and matched this glorious keyboard wizard stroke for masculine stroke. That duet between clarinet and piano and, in fact, the entire central movement, were pure bliss.
Having established before the interval that this composer had already elevated the creator/performer into the embodiment of the life force of his pieces (the elusive “I” in music), Mr. Perahia thrilled us all with an exciting version of the third. His acrobatic peregrination in the first movement was the rival of any that I have ever heard, culminating in a knockout performance of the more famous (and fitting) cadenza, whose rhythmic progressions signal, for me, the final victorious assault of Romanticism over Classicism. I could only sit with my mouth hanging open and admire this amazing display of technical coordination and communicative eloquence. Perahia is able to pound out powerful staccati and also caress the keys with the most fleeting touches of delicate melody at the same time. This was the best performance of any single work that I have experienced all season.
Frederick L. Kirshnit