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Beethoven’s Piano Concertos heard as he imagined them?

Beethoven’s Piano Concertos heard as he imagined them?

Musicians everywhere are getting ready to celebrate, and even providing trailers … like this one. 2020 is a big anniversary for Beethoven: 250 years since he was born.

The comic strip Peanuts featured a precocious piano-playing Beethoven worshipper called Schroeder, and for years, in the 1950s, Peanuts counted down the days until Beethoven’s birthday (16 December). Cartoonist Charles P. Schultz could assume most people would know of Beethoven and his lofty musical standing. Many places will mark the birthday by playing all his works in a genre – the nine symphonies or the 32 piano sonatas (‘I’m trying to learn to play all of them’, Schroeder told Lucy). In the absence of an orchestra, Schroeder didn’t, as I recall, attempt the five piano concertos on his toy piano. But he would have leapt at the opportunity. This is great music, where Beethoven richly displays his virtuosity as pianist and composer for piano and orchestra.

All five concertos will be played in 2020 as Melbourne Recital Centre’s Signature Event. Not on a toy piano – but not on a modern concert grand, either. The orchestra gives the clue. If you put ‘Baroque’ in your name, these days, you imply original instruments and historically informed performance; in both Freiburg Baroque have been admired leaders for many years.

But Beethoven? When I heard Kristian Bezuidenhout in concert this year, it was in Leipzig, at the Bach Festival, where he was Artistin- Residence. He played Bach, on the appropriate instrument, harpsichord. Freiburg Baroque were there, too (he is their artistic director). But Kristian Bezuidenhout is better-known as one of the leading players of the fortepiano. And that could be the right instrument for Beethoven, for the concertos, provided the orchestra is playing the right instruments too, and the venue isn’t too big.

The time has well and truly come for Beethoven on period instruments. Paul Badura-Skoda, who died in Vienna earlier this year aged 90, pioneered playing Beethoven on period pianos. Early in the 1970s he recorded the Fourth Concerto on a Viennese piano such as its composer played. It was exciting to hear effects Beethoven wanted, such as the distinction in pedaling between ‘one string’, and ‘two strings’. You can’t do that on a Steinway …

Playing all five concertos in numerical sequence, the concerts will demonstrate how Beethoven’s pianos grew in range of notes, and also in projection and richness of sound: an orchestra playing on instruments of the period needn’t hold back, as a modern orchestra must, and a player on a modern piano. This evolution climaxes in the fifth concerto, where the dueling of soloist and orchestra soon earned the sobriquet ‘the Emperor of piano concertos’.

In Leipzig I had an inkling that Kristian Bezuidenhout had something to do with Australia. Sure enough, although he is South African by birth, he grew up on Australia’s Gold Coast, where he started to learn the piano. ‘I recall Australia as being truly remarkable at that time for the richness and seriousness of its classical music education’. Thanks for the reminder, Kristian!

And Freiburg Baroque? Years ago one of its founding musicians, touring Australia with another ensemble, told us ‘you should invite them. They’re really good!’ Beethoven’s birthday is pretext for a great collaboration, in his honour, and for our instruction and pleasure. 

David Garrett is an Australian writer, historian, music programmer and broadcaster.

Melbourne Recital Centre presents its Signature Event of 2020, Freiburg Baroque Orchestra and Kristian Bezuidenhout performing The Complete Beethoven Piano Concertos over two outstanding evenings on Tue 10 and Wed 11 March.

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