Rhinegold Photo credit: LMP
Howard Shelley conducts the London Mozart Players at St John’s Smith Square
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Owen Mortimer

Howard Shelley to lead Beethoven concerto marathon in London

3:42, 11th February 2020

Beethoven’s piano concertos provide a bridge between the Classical and Romantic eras while tracing the composer’s battle with deafness, writes Howard Shelley

When the London Mozart Players (LMP) asked me to suggest a way we might celebrate the dubious milestone of my 70th birthday together, I found myself drawn to some sort of specially themed event. With the Beethoven 250th anniversary in the same year, it soon occurred to me that directing his five piano concertos from the piano in one extended event would be the perfect answer. We could present these fabulous works, which the LMP and I have performed together many times over the years, chronologically in one afternoon in three linked concerts. I had already agreed a version of this with the Nuremberg Symphony Orchestra for later in the year.

These five concertos have always seemed to me to be a perfect embodiment of the transition from the Classical to the Romantic era, a sort of Giant’s Causeway between the styles, bringing the piano into its adulthood and establishing the paradigm of the heroic individual versus a larger force, which underpins all the great Romantic piano concertos that were to follow. These works confirm Wagner’s contention that ‘From Haydn and Mozart it was possible and necessary for a Beethoven to arrive: the genius of music demanded it, and without delay he was there’.

I think it is no accident that the first mature piano concerto Beethoven wrote, now confusingly known as the second, is in the same key as Mozart’s last, K595. The opening of Beethoven’s concerto is not only very Mozartian, but also appears to quote the notes of the opening theme from Mozart’s work.

One could write this off as coincidental or serendipitous, but I am convinced it is not. Apart from anything else, Beethoven employs the exact same process with his First Symphony. This is in the key of C major and Mozart’s final Jupiter Symphony is in C; what’s more, the start of the Allegro is extraordinarily similar to Mozart’s opening motif. As a further indicator that Beethoven felt himself taking up Mozart’s baton, he starts his second movement with the same series of notes and rhythm as the slow movement of Mozart’s penultimate and much-loved Symphony in G minor.

Howard Shelley: ‘I find it very liberating to direct these works from the keyboard’
Howard Shelley: ‘I find it very liberating to direct these works from the keyboard’

Thus, Beethoven seems to be picking up the threads of Mozart’s last works, adding some of Haydn’s more daring and mischievous characteristics into the mix, and weaving it all together with his own huge and fast-developing musical personality and intellect.

I personally feel that his first three concertos, while quite different in character from each other, all maintain a dialogue with specific Mozart piano concertos, coming to a peak in the Third Concerto, where Beethoven becomes obsessed by Mozart’s Concerto in C minor K491, which we know he rated highly and performed, along with Mozart’s only other minor key concerto, the D minor K466. I will explain at St John’s Smith Square, as I did on a spoken track in my recording, why I believe this to be the case, and how the third note of Mozart’s concerto, an A-flat, seems to have roused, emboldened and inspired Beethoven, both in his melodies and key relationships, throughout all three movements of his C minor Concerto.

In addition to the bridge from the Classical to the Romantic style, the five concertos also reflect the progress of Beethoven’s battle with deafness and the associated psychological and isolating influences it forced on him. They were written when the composer was between the ages of 23 and 39, and the only one he did not premiere in public, because of the advanced state of his deafness, was the Emperor.

His first two concertos establish him as a young man with boundless energy and strength to bring to both his composing and playing – sforzandos become commonplace, for example. And whereas Mozart’s concertos need to sound like there is air under every note, Beethoven’s seem very definitely rooted on firm ground, more solid and toughly argued, although the gorgeous slow movements are already very Romantic.

When we come to the third of his concertos, the only one in a minor key, there is a gritty stress underlying the piece from its first notes. Given that he had just written the ‘Heiligenstadt Testament’, where he talks of contemplating suicide, and the cruel fate that he, of all people, should suffer from deafness, one has to wonder whether it is a reflection of these grim thoughts.

The Fourth Concerto has a dreamy, peaceful calm at its core, as if its composer had found a heaven on the other side of this tragedy – the only remaining stress revealing itself in the extraordinary bipolar slow movement where his newly-found inner calm, characterised by the solo piano, fails to be upset by the noisy and stressful outer world which the orchestra tries to perpetuate.

Beethoven’s final concerto takes us into yet another entirely different world, the final stepping-stone to the Romantic era, where the piano plunges in with its powerful cadenzas right at the beginning of the work, truly taking control of proceedings. This music perhaps reflects Beethoven’s inner conviction of his own extraordinariness, as he seemed to suggest when he said: ‘Power is the morality of men that stand out from the rest, and it is also mine’.

I find it very liberating and a great thrill to direct these works from the keyboard because one gets the chance to tell the story from the very beginning. Some of the greatest books begin with a phrase that sets the tone and whets the appetite for the ensuing pages, for instance Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities: ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness’. So it is with a great piece of music – the very first notes need to reach out and draw the audience in, take them by the hand, set just the right mood, and give them the confidence to lose themselves in the performance.

Normally, for pianists playing concertos, particularly Classical concertos, the first long minutes, as the orchestra plays the opening pages, are spent sitting in silence while the hands get colder. So I love the visceral excitement of conducting the orchestra from the opening moment, the ‘once upon a time’ moment, which is so important to the cohesive arc of an interpretation. It is also an exciting communal act of ensemble for those of us on the platform, where each member of the orchestra has to lock in directly with you and respond, with split-second precision, to what you are doing. At best, that can create an edge-of-the-seat dynamic which is tangible to the audience.

Thank you, LMP, for this wonderful birthday present!

Howard Shelley will celebrate his 70th birthday with performances of Beethoven’s complete piano concertos at St John’s Smith Square on Sunday 8 March 2020 londonmozartplayers.com/concert/celebrating-with-beethoven

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