Beethoven’s piano concertos are amongst the most emotionally satisfying in the whole piano repertoire. British pianist and teacher David Alexander has, for the past few years, been programming all five concertos in London as part of his own Beethoven project. On January 10th 2019 he will be performing Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4 Op. 58 at St. Peter’s Church in Notting Hill Gate with the Johannes Ensemble conducted by Angelika-Rose Stangl. I asked David why the fourth concerto is so special, and what draws him specifically to this work. Over to David…
Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.4 in G, Op.58 stands out amongst the entirety of the keyboard concerto repertoire. The unique sound world makes it immediately recognisable and it has no less emotional and spiritual depth than is conjured up in his three last piano sonatas for example, composed fifteen years later. Listening to it leaves one to consider that they are hearing the composer’s heartfelt feelings expressed through music first and foremost over beautiful and successful harmonic and melodic notation. This in no way detracts from the compositional brilliance of the piece or the beauty of the work, the most lyrical of his five piano concertos. But it is a truly organic piece which speaks from the soul.
The opening very much sets the scene, a five-bar phrase played by the soloist and based upon very simple harmonies. However, a more spell-binding musical beginning is hard to imagine. Such simplicity is all-the-more striking when heard next to the huge technical demands asked of the soloist too during the opening movement; there follows virtuosity in abundance and a big cadenza too, but the work is rarely dramatic as such and the sound is never forced even at the loudest moments. One particularly special section is the start of the development section where the piano plays very soft passagework consisting of falling sixth harmonies over long sustained bass octaves in the strings. Time appears to be totally suspended, a thoroughly captivating and entrancing point. The second movement is comparatively brief. The orchestra’s very angular and pointed statements contrast with the tranquillity of the piano’s chordal writing before eventually resolving softly in E minor. There follows a short but emotionally charged cadenza before the movement draws to a close in complete stillness. The third movement is a lively rondo and is playful in mood. It is regularly interspersed with calming moments where one feels that the music literally needs to take a breath before immediately snapping back into character again. There is a third and final cadenza before a victorious finish.
The solo and chamber music repertoire of Beethoven have always been closest to my heart and to my pianistic ideals, both technically and musically. Therefore, putting on my own Beethoven Piano Concerto cycle was a must! I have no doubt that this will be one of, if not the most satisfying performance project of my life, and so far it has more than lived up to expectation. The idea was to take three or four years to study these works intensively and to perform them, in order to experience my very own and largely uninterrupted Beethoven journey. I wanted to develop some understanding of how each concerto moves on from the previous compositionally, structurally, and pianistically as Beethoven’s own mind developed to the form. I approached conductor Angelika-Rose Stangl who formed the Johannes Ensemble (as in Brahms) in 2011 and she was every bit as excited as myself to take on the project, and so all the ingredients were quickly in place. I find that not only has my own understanding of the music improved with each performance so far, but a real sense of evolvement regarding the partnership between myself, Angelika and the Johannes Ensemble has occurred throughout the cycle. Focused rehearsals, while also leaving room for some spontaneity in the performances have so far produced the highest of highs for all of us. This concerto will truly be the heart and soul of our project, our own heart and soul, and a performance experience like no other.
For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.
You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.