- Piano Concerto No. 3
do they say about “little acorns”? Who’d
have thought that a child - born in the
backyards of Bonn, as it were - who learned
violin and piano at his father’s knee, was
destined to become one of the very few true
giants of music? Even when he emerged as
a virtuoso pianist, he was known mostly
for his hot-headed aggression. The gentlefolk
of Vienna may have been wary of his lack
of refined manners, but they lived in real
fear of the damage he could do to their
his earliest music was only “mildly radical”:
people could dismiss his departures from
Haydn’s classical models as “bumpkin-isms”.
However, if his angry demeanour was the
fuse, then the Third Piano Concerto
(1801) was the bomb: his realisation, conscious
or not, that temperament could become
music is what made him truly original. The
piano style was suddenly less ornate, more
muscular, as if he’d decided that he didn’t
have to conform to established standards
and had immediately set about challenging
the capabilities of the then current instruments.
was born the “Romantic view” of the concerto
as a “battlefield”, on which soloist and
orchestra waged war. Of the slow movement
it is often said that, at the point where
he relegates the soloist to “mere” accompanist,
Beethoven breaks new ground. Not exactly.
Really, he was harping back to the Baroque,
when soloists habitually slid into and out
of the limelight - already in the first
movement we hear precisely this. It’s called
“give and take”, and hardly constitutes
representative behaviour for supposed antagonists!
Oh, there are battles alright, but they’re
in the adventures of the themes and the
straining of the musical fabric, inevitable
when gauntlets are cast at the feet of tradition.
our cosy familiarity with concertos by such
as Brahms and Rachmaninov, it’s only by
comparing the opening of this concerto with
its contemporaries and predecessors that
we can be fully gobsmacked by it. For me
there is an unprecedented sense of power,
purpose, and potential: this is not just
the start of a musical work, it is the start
of a journey into the unknown.
spite of the first movement’s awesome scope,
all is not bull and bluster. There is almost
pious serenity in the second movement, and
robust relaxation in the finale. With consummate
cunning, Beethoven lays the touchstone of
his burgeoning genius right at the work’s
centre of gravity. Emerging from the first
movement cadenza comes a wondrous passage,
where the piano discreetly articulates arpeggios
over soft string chords and pulsing tympani.
As this blossoms and expands majestically,
I find myself musing: here’s another “little
acorn”, for surely here was born the opening
of the Ninth Symphony.
originally commissioned by the Vancouver
Symphony for a concert given on 18 October
© Paul Serotsky
37, Mayfield Grove,
West Yorkshire HD6 4EE
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