NACO tour blog 5: Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4
What is it about this concerto that makes it so difficult?
I’m experiencing this enigmatic and beautiful work from both sides: I am performing it with both James Judd and Pinchas Zukerman and the National Arts Centre Orchestra on tour, and I am currently teaching it to one of my advanced students, Lucy Chang, at the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University in Houston.
I first heard about “Beethoven 4” when I was a teenager. Older pianists would say “Beethoven 4 is impossible to understand,” or “Don’t think about playing it until you’re in your 40s,” or “It’s much too dangerous to play it in a competition,” and so on.
These comments intimidated me enough that I postponed learning it until I was out of school.
When I finally did learn Beethoven 4, I was surprised to discover its technically difficulty. I anticipated artistic challenges, but not technical ones. In fact, it’s remarkably awkward in the way that only Beethoven can be – featuring sudden changes of register and dynamics, arpeggios that require constant shifting of hand position, voicing challenges, and triplet ‘tongue twisters’ for the fingers.
Given a high level of technique, these difficulties can be surmounted. So why all the dire warnings? Why indeed am I now repeating these cautionary words to my student Lucy twenty years later?
Part of it hinges on just how much these difficulties need to be hidden. Compare this with Beethoven 5, also known as the “Emperor,” in which one can brazenly feature the technical difficulties as part of the music. But in Beethoven 4, they must serve a higher poetic ideal, or the music sounds like one big etude.
And then there is the 2nd movement. The orchestra’s muscular statements and the piano’s meek replies have been likened to Orpheus taming the Furies at the gates of Hades. I prefer to think of it as a musical precursor to Gandhi’s Satyagraha. Conductor James Judd commented that this must have truly seemed like “modern music” when it was first heard.
There is also considerably more opportunity in Beethoven 4 to ‘start and stop’ the music, which endangers the musical ‘flow.’ Maestro Judd said that one of the difficulties from the conductor’s standpoint was how and when to be free, and then to take over the reins and be disciplined.
In our three performances together I opted for maximum freedom, with the confidence that Maestro Judd and the marvelous players of NACO would treat it as a large work of chamber music. In Kamloops, we were so flexible that I occasionally worried that we wouldn’t find out way back to tempo, but each time we did. A close friend observed after the performance that this was the “most romantic Beethoven 4 that he had ever heard.”
I’m fairly sure this was meant as a compliment, but purists of the ‘authentic performance practice’ school might look askance at this free approach. At the moment, though, I can’t think of this music in any other way.
And perhaps one sign of a work’s difficulty lies in its infinite possibilities of interpretation, and potential mis-interpretation.