Program Notes: Jan Lisiecki Plays Beethoven’s Piano Concertos 1 & 3

June 8, 2022

Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis

Ralph Vaughan Williams
Born October 12, 1872, in Down Ampney, England; died August 26, 1958, in London

Ralph Vaughn Williams had a rigorous classical musical education, studied composition in Berlin with Max Bruch, and, even after he had earned his doctorate from Cambridge University, went to Paris to polish his technique under the tutelage of Maurice Ravel.

The Fantasia is a free treatment of a melody that Thomas Tallis (ca. 1505-1585), a member of Queen Elizabeth’s Chapel Royal, published in 1567 when he composed eight melodies each based on one of the eight ecclesiastical modes. Vaughan Williams chose a setting of the third mode that begins, according to the first edition, as a melody that “doth rage [and] roughly brayeth.” A setting of the Second Psalm, it begins, in the King James Version, “Why do the heathen rage?” Tallis set to music the Archbishop of Canterbury’s English verse translation, which still appears in the English Hymnal.

Vaughan Williams composed his Fantasia for the Three Choirs Festival of 1910, where it made its premiere in the Gloucester Cathedral on Sept 6, but it was not published until 1921. Richly written for the strings, the work uses a solo quartet, a small string orchestra, and a large one. “The three bodies of strings,” the composer said, “are used in various ways, sometimes playing as one, sometimes antiphonally, sometimes accompanying one another.”

The composition succeeds in being an inspired re-creation of the rich polyphonic style of Tallis’s time. As the composer wanted to preserve the ecclesiastical character of the melody, he used its original harmonies. “With the Norman grandeur of Gloucester Cathedral in mind and the strange quality of the resonance of stone,” the composer’s wife later wrote, “the echo idea of three different groups of instruments was well judged. It seemed that his early love for architecture and his historical knowledge were so deeply assimilated that they were transferred and absorbed into the texture and the line of the music.”

Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis is scored for double string orchestra with a string quartet. Orchestra I is the main body of strings; Orchestra II is smaller. The score does not indicate the number of players in Orchestra I; Orchestra II consists of two first violins, two seconds, two violas, two cellos, and one double bass.


Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major, Op. 15

Ludwig van Beethoven
Born December 16, 1770, in Bonn; died March 26, 1827, in Vienna

Throughout his lifetime, Beethoven was acknowledged to be a formidable pianist whose skills and technical virtuosity few others could match; it was rare to find a pianist who had the drama, the expression of feeling, or the musicality his playing possessed. Like Mozart, Beethoven was an expert at improvisation at the keyboard, a skill much in demand at the end of the 18th century. Early in his career, when he performed concerti publicly at concerts, he took Mozart’s concerti as his models and expanded their form somewhat, often with his improvisations, but his listeners were often disturbed with the innovations his early concerti evidence. The Czech composer, Václav Tomásek, admired Beethoven’s bold improvisations, but criticized the “frequent daring deviations from one theme to another, which destroyed the continuity and gradual development of his ideas.” He went on, “Evils of this nature, springing from a too exuberant fancy, often mar his greatest compositions . . .. The singular and original seem to be his chief aim in composition . . ..” By much later in his career, when he was writing his mature compositions, Beethoven made important alterations in the classical structures, for example in Piano Concerti Nos. 4 and 5, but after the age of forty, he abandoned the piano concerto form; thus, the later innovations listeners hear in his piano sonatas, string quartets, and symphonies have no counterpart in his piano concerti.

Beethoven once wrote of Piano Concerto No. 1, “It is one of my first, and therefore not one of the best of my compositions,” yet it is one of young Beethoven’s most lyrical works. It contains memorable melodies that bear the recognizable stamp of Beethoven’s originality, even though he was only twenty-eight when he composed the work. Today’s listeners will find it milder than Beethoven’s contemporaries did and will not be able to fathom the objections that Tomásek made to this fairly unadventurous (to 21st century ears) piano concerto.

The pleasing, mellifluous concerto opens Allegro con brio, with a pleasant and delicate theme that slowly metamorphoses into one with more assertiveness when the orchestra joins in the exposition. The movement expresses a sturdy character as well as subtlety in the way that themes and their development move back and forth between orchestra and soloist. The movement follows Classical form and includes a piano cadenza just before the end. The middle movement, Largo, a poetically ornamented nocturne, has such poignancy that it evoked tears in Beethoven’s first audiences. This movement’s orchestration is notable because of its variety and the solo clarinet’s special precedence. In the finale, a witty, robust Rondo, Allegro scherzando, some of Beethoven’s “irregularities” are a bit more apparent. Also prominent is the feeling of dance music in the middle of the movement. The piano soloist has two short, almost mini-cadenzas in this movement.

The orchestra consists of a flute, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, timpani, and strings.


Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 37

Ludwig van Beethoven

Beethoven’s first three piano concerti are amplifications and, to a degree, modernizations of Mozart’s piano concerti. The last two concerti would be entirely different, constructed with great freedom and originality and looking far ahead into the 19th century, not back to the 18th. Beethoven completed Piano Concerto No. 3 in manuscript in 1800 when he was only thirty years old, using material that he had been gathering in his sketchbooks for several years. He did not make final revisions and write out the solo part until its first performance on April 3, 1803; it was not published until 1804. The concerto stands on the brink because there is still much of Mozart and the Classical tradition to be heard in it, but it also shines forth with much of the individuality of the mature Beethoven. Thus, this is one of the works that marks the end of the first period and the beginning of the second of the three creative periods into which Beethoven’s work is usually divided. 

Generally, by what has been called Beethoven’s middle period, and it is evident in this concerto too, Beethoven’s writing has become bolder than it had been earlier, distinguishing it from the writing in his first two concerti. In the handling of the interrelationship of piano and orchestra Beethoven begins to explore new paths. Another innovation in this work is his use of the timpani. Until Beethoven used them here, in the first movement, as participants in the exposition of a theme, they had never been given the opportunity to take part in the thematic statement. Before, the timpani had only been used to beat time and to emphasize the home key and its dominant to which they had traditionally been tuned.

At a concert given in Vienna on April 5, 1803, this concerto, Symphony No. 2, and the oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives all had their premieres. In the rush of preparation, Beethoven spent the whole night before the first rehearsal writing down on paper all the music that was already complete in his mind, but he did not bother to note all the details of the piano part since he was to play it himself. At that time, it was traditional for the pianist to perform in concert with the sheet music in front of him. Beethoven asked a musician friend, Ritter von Seyfried, to turn pages for him at the concert, but many pages were blank or had only a few hastily scribbled unreadable notes on them; nevertheless, Beethoven nodded his head periodically as a signal and was greatly amused by his friend’s anxiety about when to make the almost unnecessary page turns.

In the first dramatic movement of the concerto, Allegro con brio, the traditional Classical long and full orchestral exposition of the themes comes before the soloist announces his presence with a series of powerful rushing scales. Some years later, Beethoven wrote out a solo cadenza for this movement, but experts doubt whether it can be compared to what Beethoven improvised when he was himself the soloist. The work was, in all likelihood, written out for the Emperor’s youngest son, Archduke Rudolf, who was Beethoven’s gifted pupil and generous and faithful friend, but he was not equally talented as a pianist. After the cadenza, the themes are not repeated again, but the brilliant closing coda includes unexpected harmonic innovations.

In the slow movement, Largo, a solemn theme in a remote key is richly developed in a dialogue for piano and orchestra. The movement is distinctive for its beautiful and sensuous thematic material and its expressive second cadenza at the conclusion. The finale is a vigorous rondo, Allegro, in which the main theme recurs in alternation with contrasting episodes. At one point, Beethoven reminds us of the slow movement by wrenching the main theme back into its distant key. In the final episode, he turns to a sprightly new rhythm and the bright key of C Major. The harmonic changes in this movement foreshadow Beethoven’s later style. 

A feature that is very characteristic of Beethoven in this movement, and which he was to repeat in many finales, is the combination of sonata form with rondo form. Another cadenza comes near the end of the movement. After it, the conclusion of the concerto comes swiftly, but Beethoven takes the listener there with a new meter and a new tempo. 

The work is dedicated to Prince Louis Ferdinand of Prussia, an amateur musician, whom Beethoven met at the house of Prince Franz Joseph von Lobkowitz. 

The score requires two flutes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, timpani, and strings.

Program notes © Susan Halpern unless otherwise noted.

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