Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 2 San Francisco Symphony & Michael Tilson Thomas

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  • Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 - 1827): Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-Flat Major, Op. 19:
  • 1Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-Flat Major, Op. 19: I. Allegro con brio15:09
  • 2Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-Flat Major, Op. 19: II. Adagio08:33
  • 3Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-Flat Major, Op. 19: III. Rondo (Molto allegro)06:33
  • Total Runtime30:15

Info for Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 2

Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony are joined by legendary pianist and longtime friend Emanuel Ax for Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto, available on the San Francisco Symphony’s 2019–20 Digital Concert Series. The work, written by a young Beethoven, already has all the marks of the composer’s genius: infectious melodies, a moving and lyrical slow movement, and boisterous finale.

Beethoven made his first sketches in about 1788, brought the score to provisional completion in 1794–95, and probably played and conducted its premiere on March 29, 1795, in Vienna. He made extensive revisions for a 1798 performance in Prague, and that revised text, along with refinements prepared just prior to the work’s initial publication in 1801, represents the piece as we know it today.

THE BACKSTORY At thirteen, Beethoven was already an adept keyboard player, and enough of a composer to start work on his first piano concerto. That effort from 1784 survives only in piano score. Ten years later, however, he was finishing a piano concerto in B-flat major; and in 1792, when Beethoven moved to Vienna, he carried with him the preliminary work he had done on this concerto. (Though the B-flat major was the first concerto Beethoven completed, we know it as his Piano Concerto No. 2 because it was published after the second piano concerto he finished, the one in C major, which we call No. 1.)

Within weeks of arriving in the Austrian capital, Beethoven signed on as a pupil of Haydn’s. The relationship was cordial but not particularly fruitful, and when Haydn left Vienna for his second English residency, in 1794, Beethoven seized the opportunity to become a student of Johann Georg Albrechtsberger, the Capellmeister of Saint Stephen’s Cathedral. A more thorough academician than Haydn had been, Albrechtsberger put Beethoven through his paces in contrapuntal writing at various levels of complexity, from simple note-against-note exercises through double fugue, triple counterpoint, and strict canon. Beethoven also set about cultivating a circle of potential patrons during his early Vienna years. He had reasonable success in gaining access to influential aristocrats, and quite a few sponsored him in piano recitals at their impressive homes. These represented the principal outlet for a performer’s talents, since public concerts were still rare in Vienna during the 1790s.

One less exclusive, high-profile event did come Beethoven’s way on March 29, 1795, when he was featured as both composer and pianist at a charity concert at Vienna’s Burgtheater, held for the benefit of the Vienna Composers Society, which looked after the welfare of musicians’ widows and orphans. It is widely assumed that he seized this occasion to premiere his B-flat major Concerto (although it is conceivable that the “new concerto of his invention” included on the program was the C major).

Anyone writing a piano concerto in Vienna in the 1790s did so in the shadow of Mozart. Beethoven had met him on a 1787 trip to Vienna and may even have taken some piano lessons from him at that time. Beethoven knew some of Mozart’s concertos intimately, and in the B-flat Concerto he employs an orchestra of conservative mid-Classical dimensions, identical to that required in several of Mozart’s late piano concertos. In general structure he also sticks to a Mozartian norm: three movements, of which the first is a sonata form with an orchestral exposition, the second a lyrical slow movement, and the third a rondo. In addition, the texture is truly orchestral. Where many other composers of the day favored the sort of writing in which the virtuoso was given sparkling material against a subservient background of accompanying instruments, Beethoven followed the Mozartian ideal of a more integrated texture in which the piano plays the role of first among equals. Nonetheless, within this idealized scoring the soloist has plenty to keep him busy; and if the finger-work sounds not quite Mozartian, the fact remains that the apple has not fallen far from the tree

THE MUSIC But even in this early work—the first full-length orchestral piece Beethoven ever wrote—we find the fingerprints of a distinct talent. In the opening Allegro con brio the listener is struck by the rapid alternation of themes with starkly contrasting personalities, a chiaroscuro abetted by equally clear juxtapositions of dynamics. Although Beethoven does not engage here in the sort of harmonic questing that would soon mark his innovative musical architecture, he does reveal that such things already interest him through his unusually frequent references to the minor mode and, especially, the passage in the unanticipated key of D-flat major that surfaces not far into the orchestral exposition.

For his slow movement, Beethoven offers a lyrical, rather solemn melody that becomes increasingly embroidered as the movement progresses. This would surely have provided him with an opportunity to show off his skill as an improviser. It seems unlikely that he would have constrained himself literally to the score as we have it, especially since he hadn’t gotten around to writing it down by the time of the premiere. In fact, he probably didn’t set much of the concerto down on the page for another six years after the first performance. Writing on April 22, 1801, to the concerto’s eventual publisher, the composer said, “As is usual with me, the pianoforte part in the concerto was not written out in the score, and only now have I done so, hence, because of the haste you will receive that part in my own illegible manuscript.” Still, if the details may originally have departed from what was published, the general contours were firmly in place, including the surprising simplicity of the soloist’s unharmonized melody in the closing pages of this movement. This would seem a supremely Mozartian touch, except that Mozart never did it quite the way Beethoven does here, preparing the listener for a cadenza (an improvisatory solo passage) by building up to a classic cadence and then foiling expectations by delivering scaled-down simplicity instead of technical intricacy.

Ironically, the last movement, the rollicking Rondo that Beethoven seems to have tossed off just days before the premiere, is the movement that remains most memorable. Both of the preceding movements are beautifully composed and filled with interesting ideas and imaginative working-out. But the Rondo theme, an infectious little tune in compound time, is blessed with Scotch-snappish, “short-fast” rhythms that have a way of sticking in the ear. The Rondo refrain appears four times in the course of the movement, and the interludes provide delightful contrast, including a foray in the direction of what late-eighteenth-century listeners would have taken to be “Gypsy” music. (James M. Keller)

Emanuel Ax, piano
San Francisco Symphony
Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor

San Francisco Symphony
The San Francisco Symphony, widely considered to be among the most artistically adventurous and innovative arts institutions in the U.S., celebrated its Centennial season in 2011-12. The Orchestra was established by a group of San Francisco citizens, music-lovers, and musicians in the wake of the 1906 earthquake, and played its first concert on December 8, 1911. Almost immediately, the Symphony revitalized the city's cultural life. The Orchestra has grown in stature and acclaim under a succession of distinguished music directors: American composer Henry Hadley, Alfred Hertz (who had led the American premieres of Parsifal, Salome, and Der Rosenkavalier at the Metropolitan Opera), Basil Cameron, Issay Dobrowen, the legendary Pierre Monteux (who introduced the world to Le Sacre du printemps and Petrushka), Enrique Jordá, Josef Krips, Seiji Ozawa, Edo de Waart, Herbert Blomstedt (now Conductor Laureate), and current Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT). Led by Tilson Thomas, who begins his nineteenth season as Music Director in 2013-14, the SFS presents more than 220 concerts annually, and reaches an audience of nearly 600,000 in its home of Davies Symphony Hall, through its multifaceted education and community programs, and on national and international tours.

Since Tilson Thomas assumed his post as the SFS's eleventh Music Director in September 1995, he and the San Francisco Symphony have formed a musical partnership hailed as one of the most inspiring and successful in the country. His tenure with the Orchestra has been praised for outstanding musicianship, innovative programming, highlighting the works of American composers, and bringing new audiences to classical music. In addition, the Orchestra has been recognized nationally and internationally as a leader in music education and for the use of multimedia, television, technology, and the web to make classical music available worldwide to as many people as possible. MTT now is the longest-tenured music director for a major American orchestra, and the longest-serving music director in the San Francisco Symphony's history.

In its Centennial season, the Orchestra reprised its acclaimed American Mavericks Festival of music by pioneering modern American composers, featuring the world premieres of four commissioned works in two weeks of concerts at Davies Symphony Hall and on a two-week national tour, including four performances at Carnegie Hall. The San Francisco Symphony regularly mounts special weeklong semi-staged productions with multimedia, hosted and curated by MTT, and in 2012-13 presented specially staged performances of Grieg's Peer Gynt and the first concert performances by an orchestra of the complete music from Bernstein's West Side Story, which were recorded for release on SFS Media. Tilson Thomas and the Orchestra also dedicated several weeks to explorations of the music of Beethoven, selections of which were recorded for SFS Media, and Stravinsky, on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the premiere of his Rite of Spring.

Since 1996, when Tilson Thomas led the Orchestra on the first of their more than a dozen national tours together, they have continued an ambitious yearly touring schedule that takes them to Europe, Asia and throughout the United States. In March 2014 they return to Europe for a three-week tour performing repertoire from the SFS Media catalogue including John Adams' Absolute Jest, Ives' A Concord Symphony, Mahler's Symphony No. 3, and Berlioz' Symphonie fantastique at two concerts each in London, Paris, and Vienna, and performances in Prague, Geneva, Luxembourg, Dortmund, and Birmingham. In 2012, they performed during a two-week national American Mavericks tour and a two-week tour of Asia with pianist Yuja Wang in Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Taipei, and Macau. In 2011, they made a three-week tour of Europe, culminating in Vienna performances of three Mahler symphonies to commemorate the anniversaries of the composer's birth and death. Recent touring highlights also include a three-week 2007 European tour that featured two televised appearances at the BBC Proms in London and concerts at several other major European festivals.

The Orchestra's recording series on SFS Media continues to reflect the artistic identity of its programming, including its commitment to performing the work of American maverick composers alongside that of the core classical masterworks. The San Francisco Symphony has recorded works from the American Mavericks Festival

concerts by Henry Cowell, Lou Harrison, and Edgard Varèse with pianist Jeremy Denk and organist Paul Jacobs, and won a 2013 Best Orchestral Performance Grammy award for its recording of John Adams' Harmonielehre and Short Ride in a Fast Machine. Other recently recorded works include Beethoven's Symphonies No. 5, 7, 9, and Piano Concerto No. 4, with soloist Emanuel Ax; Ives' A Concord Symphony; and Copland's Organ Symphony with Paul Jacobs. A live performance of John Adams' Absolute Jest with the St. Lawrence String Quartet and the Orchestra was recorded for future release on SFS Media, and live performances of Beethoven's Symphony No. 2 and Cantata on the Death of Emperor Joseph II was released in November 2013. Tilson Thomas and the Orchestra have recorded all nine of Gustav Mahler's symphonies and the Adagio from the unfinished Symphony No. 10, and the composer's works for voices, chorus, and orchestra for SFS Media. Their 2009 recording with the SFS Chorus of Mahler's sweeping Symphony No. 8, Symphony of a Thousand, and the Adagio from Symphony No. 10 won three Grammy awards, including Best Classical Album and Best Choral Performance. Other significant recordings include scenes from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet, a collection of Stravinsky ballets, a Gershwin collection, and Charles Ives: An American Journey, among others. In addition to fifteen Grammy awards, seven of them for the Mahler cycle, the SFS has won some of the world's most prestigious recording awards, including Japan's Record Academy Award, France's Grand Prix du Disque, and Germany's ECHO Klassik Award.

Tilson Thomas and the SFS launched the national Keeping Score PBS television series and multimedia project in 2006 to help make classical music more accessible to people of all ages and musical backgrounds. The project, an unprecedented undertaking among orchestras, is anchored by eight composer documentaries, hosted by Tilson Thomas, and eight live concert films; it also includes, an innovative website to explore and learn about music; a national radio series; documentary and live performance DVD and CDs; and an education program for K-12 schools to further teaching through the arts by integrating classical music into core subjects. More than six million people have seen the Keeping Score television series, and the radio series has been broadcast on almost 100 stations nationally.

The San Francisco Symphony provides the most extensive education programs offered by any American orchestra today. In 1988, the Symphony established Adventures in Music (AIM), a free, comprehensive music education program that reaches every first- through fifth-grade child in the San Francisco Unified School District. The SFS Instrument Training and Support program reaches students in all San Francisco public middle and high schools with instrumental music programs, providing coaching by professional musicians. The Symphony expanded its educational offerings in 2011-12 with Community of Music Makers, a program that supports amateur choral singers and instrumental musicians with professional coaching by SFS musicians, rehearsals, and other learning opportunities. In development is a revitalized children's music education website,, created in conjunction with the UC Irvine Center for Computer Games and Virtual Worlds. The SFS also offers opportunities to hear and learn about great music through its programs Concerts for Kids, Music for Families, the internationally-acclaimed SFS Youth Orchestra, and annual free and community concerts.

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