Baptized by Beethoven
"Like a bath of G major." With these words my teacher Leon Fleisher described the opening chord of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4. I was 16 years old and the concerto was one of the first pieces I studied with him, so my early memories of this great work glow with the sense of discovery I felt from his poetic and revelatory teaching. The bath of G major with which the piece begins signals something new in the evolution of the concerto for a solo instrument and orchestra, because it is the first such work that begins not with the orchestra but with the soloist, completely alone in the entire first phrase. Many years later, when I had the opportunity to perform the concerto under Fleisher's baton at the Peabody Conservatory, he joked to me just before walking onstage: "If the opening phrase goes well, feel free to close the piano and say goodnight!"
His joke revealed much about the way pianists see not just the first phrase but the entire concerto. In it Beethoven seems to be reaching for a synthesis of soulfulness and luminosity, of depth and height. It requires utmost awareness and concentration. Playing it can feel like approaching a holy altar, such that preparing to perform it calls not just for practice but for meditation and prayer, not just for listening to glorious sound but for listening to silence. And yet for all the work's profundity, a spirit of playfulness abounds as well, reminding us that the divine is quite at home alongside the human and down to earth.
In the second movement Beethoven comes pretty close to an explicit demonstration of "teaching peace." We don't know exactly what he had in mind, and I think it was Franz Liszt who first likened the dialogue between the orchestra and the piano to the Orpheus story, in which Orpheus, in his quest for his departed Eurydice, tames the beasts of the underworld with the power of his beautiful music. But there can be no doubt that the piano is not just engaging in dialogue with the orchestra but persuading, coaxing, and ultimately calming it. The piano changes the orchestra in a way never before attempted in the concerto literature. This spirit of transformation is utterly in keeping with the heavenly reach found elsewhere in the concerto.
While my collaboration with Piotr Gajewski and the National Philharmonic doesn't reach quite as far back as my studies with Leon Fleisher, it does reach 25 years back to my early thirties. We have performed more than a dozen works for piano and orchestra in the intervening years, more than I have played with any other conductor or orchestra, and so I think of Piotr and the orchestra as my musical family. However, in all these years we have never done a solo concerto of Beethoven! (We did do the Triple Concerto a few years back.) So it is with a very special sense of joyful anticipation that I look forward to exploring and sharing this luminous work, so long a part of me, with my musical family. I invite you to join us on September 17 at 8p or September 18 at 3p (or both!) at the Music Center at Strathmore.
Only recently I realized that the bath of G major with which the concerto begins is replicated at the very end of the concerto- the same notes in both hands. But the left hand is much lower, as low as it can go on the piano, and the right hand higher, as high as it can go (or as high as it could go in Beethoven's time). With this symbolic gesture Beethoven reminds the listener of how this great work explores both depth and height, soul and spirit, the human and the divine. The final chord spans the entire keyboard, the hands at opposite ends. The bath of G major has become an embrace.