Pianist Ohlsson stars in ‘Beethoven Extravaganza’07 Jul 2022
Perhaps Western civilization’s first “modern” composer, Beethoven (1770-1827) transformed music, pushing it beyond its classical conventions and using it to convey and explore the deep philosophical questions of his (and, still, ours) day.
One can witness the metamorphosis through the 17 string quartets he wrote between 1799 and 1826, his 35 piano sonatas (1790-1822) or his five completed piano concertos, the first of which he started in 1788 and the last he finished in 1811.
“They’re a very important part of Beethoven’s development,” pianist Garrick Ohlsson said last week from his home in San Francisco.
Over the course of two nights this week Ohlsson will perform all five of them with the Grand Teton Music Festival Orchestra, with Sir Donald Runnicles conducting.
At 8 p.m. Friday in Walk Festival Hall he will solo on Concertos No. 1, 2 and 4; starting at 6 p.m. Saturday he will perform Nos. 3 and 5, with the orchestra playing Beethoven’s only score for a ballet, “The Creatures of Prometheus.”
Ohlsson has played the concertos dozens or, some of them even hundreds of times in his career, but to hear all five performed in succession is a rarer occasion.
“I did it once before,” he said.
It sounds like an aerobic feat, but while the pianist said he didn’t want to deny the athleticism, playing a solo recital is actually more difficult.
“Then you’re playing the equivalent of two or three piano concertos,” he said. “With all concertos there a David versus Goliath effect — you’re on the piano and it looks like the one against the many. People will say after a performance, ‘You must be so exhausted,’ and I’ll answer, ‘No, I just got warmed up.’ … You get enormous energy and lift from the orchestra.”
Beethoven, a virtuoso pianist, wrote his first three piano concertos, Ohlsson said, to show himself off in his new home in Vienna. Born in small-town Bonn, Germany, he moved to cosmopolitan Vienna, Austria, in 1792, just shy of his 22nd birthday.
“He made quite a noise when he emigrated from Bonn to Vienna,” Ohlsson said. “He was kind of a rude very, very republican, not at all emperoristic. He’s a blustery, self-confident fellow who is very impatient with a lot of the conventions of his time.”
Those first works have a stately if not a courtly grandeur, while Beethoven makes some wilder choices with Nos. 4 and 5.
“At the time it was standard for an orchestra to present the theme and then you wait for the entrance of the solo instrument,” Ohlsson said. “Will it reiterate the theme? Comment on it? Charm or thrill? But in the fifth concert … the piano just storms in. Audiences at the time had their breath taken away. It was very unusual. Then, in the middle, there’s a fight between the piano and the orchestra. Pretty radical.”
There are a number of factors behind that evolution. For one thing, both pianos and orchestras changed between the 1790s and 1810s.
“The 1795 piano was not as powerful,” Ohlsson said. But thanks to various technological developments, it gathered strength and resonance over the decades. “And Beethoven loved the new developments. As the keyboard expanded, he immediately went right up there. … The instrument was developing, and he was instrumental in the development of piano technique. He wanted the instrument to do more than it could, and he challenged other players.”
Also, Beethoven’s time was an era of tremendous social and political change throughout Europe.
“There was a lot of revolution going on at the time,” he said. “The Austrian empire was frightened by what was going on in France” — with the upstart Napoleon I waging war with Austria, Italy, the United Kingdom, the Holy Roman Empire and Russia — “but Beethoven was sympathetic to the French cause. He even considered moving to France.”
Even though he relied upon the patronage of the aristocracy to earn his living, “he was not an indentured servant like Haydn. He made his own way.”
One anecdote has Beethoven walking the streets of Vienna with his friend Johann Wolfgang von Goethe when the emperor’s carriage passed by. Goethe took off his hat in deference to the royal, but Beethoven did not.
“It is he who should take his hat off to us,” he said.
“He knew he was the equivalent of Goethe or Haydn or Mozart,” Ohlsson said. “He had no doubt about himself.”
That confidence comes out more and more throughout the five concertos, as does his indifference or even disdain for hierarchy.
One other factor in the composer’s development, Ohlsson said, was his worsening deafness.
Beethoven attributed his deafness to a fight he got into with a vocalist in 1798. Within a few years it was causing him serious trouble — in 1802 he wrote in a letter that he was considering killing himself — but somehow he managed to continue to compose greater and greater music.
“The more deaf he became, the finer his inner ear became,” Ohlsson said. “His late music has exquisite balance.”
Recognizing the specialness of this occasion, and as a late 250th birthday present to Beethoven and a late 60th birthday present to the Music Festival, Friday and Saturday night’s concerts will be recorded and released as the nonprofit’s first commercial release, probably in 2023.
“I’ve recorded lots of piano concertos and solos,” Ohlsson said. “And every pianist has recorded Beethoven’s piano concerto … but the orchestra at Teton festival is first class, world superlative, so it’s a special occasion. It should be a pretty hot experience.”