Concert Note:
Brisk Furies
6 August 2019

The first of the two works on Friday’s concert’s program was Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, the one in G. This and the preceding one in in C Minor are my favorites of Beethoven’s five. The first two concerti are amusing, but it hard for me not to hear them as attempts to imitate, not Mozart’s piano concertos directly, but hypothetical attempts to imitate them by, say, Haydn: Mozart at two removes. With the Third Concerto, Beethoven created his own mold, and used it two more times with great success. Actually, I myself don’t see the Fifth Concerto, the “Emperor,” as a great success. Its air is polluted by that masculine self-importance that distinguishes Beethoven from Brahms, the other German who settled in Vienna — not to mention the three great Austrians themselves, Haydn, Mozart, and Schubert. And it concludes with a frankly vulgar waltz that’s far more Hollywood than Hofburg. The Fourth is, as we might say on the Upper East Side, much nicer. 

But the Fourth Concerto lacks a proper slow movement, a lyrical interlude between displays of virtuosity. I don’t think that Beethoven is sufficiently renowned for his lyrical interludes; there are days when I think that he invented them. They were his way of making up to the ladies in the audiences — ladies with whom his birth and gruff bearing made closer intimacy unthinkable. While we’re all too aware of the Faustian agonies of the noisier symphonies, we tend to forget that Beethoven composed his slow movements, especially in sonatas but elsewhere, too, with the canniness of a Brill Building balladeer. But perhaps he felt that the outer movements of the Fourth Concerto were already too genial to mask any surreptitious romancing. Instead, he gave us a bit of recitative that is said to put learned Germans in mind of Orpheus pleading with the Furies for admittance to Hades, from which he wishes to liberate his wife. I haven’t got the score handy, but I would bet that the movement is written for strings and piano only. The strings play what they have to say in unison, with a shapely tunelessness that convention makes musical by interpreting it as a series of moans and groans. Happily for a change, we were presented on Friday night with brisk, decisive strokes, and the movement seemed to last about half as long. 

The pianist was Pierre-Laurent Aimard. He was very good, possibly perfect, even; the thing is, I wasn’t there for the Beethoven. I sat back and enjoyed it. I will say that Airmard’s runs up and down the keyboard, although perfectly regular, sounded like a force of nature, rather than a mechanical one; and they did not always end quite in synch with the orchestra, but just independently enough to be “artistic” rather than “defective.” The orchestra, under Gianandrea Noseda — the man I was there to hear — directed a lively reading that had something of the restraint of an overture: slightly more promise than performance. This suited me, too. It warmed me up for what was to come. 

I got to know the Fourth Concerto at a time when I was trying to assemble a Heathkit stereo receiver. I was not put on this earth to solder connections, or even to be sure which side of a circuit board is up, and I’m not sure that the receiver ever worked. (It may have been rescued by more capable hands.) But during the weeks that I spent fiddling with it, I got to know the first work by Beethoven that touched my heart. I was an undergraduate, and someone living down the dormitory hall had a recording of the Fourth that I fell in love with and borrowed an unconscionable number of times. Another fellow down the hall — someone who would become a very close friend — had a boxed set of the Budapest Quartet playing the late Beethovens, but they were beyond me, brusque and not at all pretty (a word that I already knew better than to use). But if I couldn’t sit through the late quartets without getting antsy, I did see quite clearly that every serious person must come to terms with this music. So, if not yet, I would make myself familiar with it. Which I did, eventually. But the quartets never remind me of the Heathkit project. The Fourth Concerto never fails to. 

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