Friday, December 22, 2017

Rudolf Serkin plays Beethoven

No. 267 of the ongoing ITYWLTMT series of audio montages can be found in our archives at


Today's podcast and our upcoming Boxing Day Tuesday Blog will feature three  major works by Beethoven he conducted at a monumental concert held on this day, almost 210 years ago. According to what we know of that evening's program, the last piece before intermission was the public premiere of his Piano Concerto no. 4.

The actual premiere took place almost 18 months earlier, at a private concert of the home of Prince Franz Joseph von Lobkowitz. The Coriolan Overture and the Fourth Symphony were premiered in that same concert.Beethoven dedicated the concerto to his friend, student, and patron, the Archduke Rudolph.

A review in the May 1809 edition of the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung states that "[this concerto] is the most admirable, singular, artistic and complex Beethoven concerto ever". However, after its first performance, the piece was neglected until 1836, when it was revived by Felix Mendelssohn. Today, the work is widely performed and recorded, and is considered to be one of the central works of the piano concerto literature.

What is unique about this concerto is that, unlike other ones by Beethoven, the introduction is given to the soloist, not the orchestra. Also, its rondo finale is most joyous.

Today's soloist, Rudolf Serkin, is what we call in Frech "une valeur sûre", a trusted hand at the wheel when it comes to the great classical and romantic keyboard repertoire.

To open the podcast, I chose a recording by Serkin of the Hammerklavier sonata (more exactly the Große Sonate für das Hammerklavier). Hammerklavier literally means "hammer-keyboard", and is still today the German name for the fortepiano, the predecessor of the modern pianoforte.

The sonata's name comes from Beethoven's later practice of using German rather than Italian words for musical terminology, thus the sonata is his "Grand sonata for the fortepiano". "Hammerklavier" was part of the title to specify that the work was not to be played on the harpsichord, an instrument that was still very much in evidence in the early 1800s.

The work also makes extensive use of the una corda (or soft) pedal, with Beethoven giving for his time unusually detailed instructions when to use it. On a grand piano this pedal shifts the whole action including the keyboard slightly to the right, so that hammers which normally strike all three of the strings for a note strike only two of them.

The Hammerklavier stands out for its length (performances typically take about 45 to 50 minutes). While orchestral works such as symphonies and concerti had often contained movements of 15 or even 20 minutes for many years, few single movements in solo literature had a span such as the Hammerklavier's Adagio sostenuto. Its technical challenges and length make it one of the most demanding solo works in the classical piano repertoire.

I think you will love this music too!