Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra Launches Weekend of Beethoven Piano Concertos

Rudolf Buchbinder & Orchestra Deliver Powerfully Brilliant Performance of First Set

By George B. Parous

The Program:

  • Concerto No. 2 for Piano and Orchestra in B-flat major, Op. 19
  • Concerto No. 4 for Piano and Orchestra in G major, Op. 58
  • Concerto No. 3 for Piano and Orchestra in C minor, Op. 37

Award-winning and world renown pianist Rudolf Buchbinder, along with the amazing talent of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, last evening gave the first set of Beethoven piano concertos to resound through Heinz Hall this weekend. The 2nd, 4th and 3rd concertos were marvelously performed before too few people last evening, and the 1st and 5th will be performed at tomorrow’s matinee. The concertos are tremendous challenges, and Beethoven himself once admitted that he was inspired to compose them as such for a reason. The story goes that he once commented that the complexity of the scores were born of his “desire to embarrass those Viennese pianists, some of whom are my sworn enemies.”  They posed no terrors, however, for the musicians on the stage last night.

Technically, there was no conductor for the performance, though Mr. Buchbinder was down as the “leader,” and lead he did, when his hands were not otherwise occupied. He dazzled with amazing dexterity throughout the evening with his playing; his fingers a “blur,” as someone in the audience was heard to note, while his hands never left the perfect playing position he was probably taught as a youngster. The orchestra, being such a finely prepared group of musicians, proved for the most part that they are so well rehearsed and so finely honed a body of incisive, ingenious instrumentalists that they can go it alone if that’s what a situation requires. They played with the same tight precision they display under Manfred Honeck and other conductors.

While not in numeric order, the concertos were arranged for the finest musical effect, with Nos. 2 and 4 on the first half of the program, and No. 3 making up the second. All three concertos consist of three movements, with the opening Concerto No. 2 (in B-flat major, op. 19), including an Allegro con brio, an Adagio (in E♭ major) and a Rondo: Molto allegro. The first movement, in concerto variant of sonata form, allowed the orchestra to grandly introduce the main theme and give to the audience its first taste of Buchbinder’s virtuosity. An oddity of this concerto is that Beethoven’s orchestration omits clarinets, trumpets and timpani. The piece was played brilliantly. But something unusual was in the air last evening, and this first movement came to its thrilling conclusion without the smattering of nervous applause which usually interrupts the orchestra before they can proceed to the next movement. This bit of audience etiquette reigned through the evening, without a sound coming until the end of each concerto, and then the roar of applause was loud and long.

The 4th concerto was played with the same thrilling effect. Oddly, this concerto is said to have left little impression on its initial audiences and was more or less neglected until after Beethoven’s death. The opening Allegro moderato movement begins with the piano soloist playing simple chords, with the orchestra entering when the pianist reaches the B major dominant chord. A young Felix Mendelssohn is credited with reviving interest in the concerto by performing it at Leipzig in 1836. An equally young Robert Schumann was in the audience. He wrote that he was so impressed by what he was hearing that “I sat in my place without moving a muscle or even breathing.” That same Allegro moderato, as well as the Andante con moto and Rondo (Vivace) seemed to have a similar effect on last evening’s audience, and the first half of the program was closed with a well-deserved ovation.

As noted above, the Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37, made for the second half of the concert, and was played as splendidly as the first part had been. And anyone familiar with the concerto can well imagine what Buchbinder and the P.S.O. did with the work. It was a brilliant concert throughout, but, at least on the orchestra floor, it seemed as if little more than the subscription crowd were out to enjoy it. Too many empty rows glared back at the stage, but the performers were received with the heartiest applause such an audience could possibly muster up. Mr. Buchbinder alone had to respond to at least a half dozen recalls, and the orchestra, as they always do, were applauded vociferously. It’s been said before: the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra deserves full houses at every performance. Last night’s crowd size is a mystery.

Sunday’s matinee performance will not be a repetition of last evening’s program. Instead, it will consist of Beethoven’s Concerto No. 1 for Piano and Orchestra in C Major, Op. 15, and his Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 73, “Emperor.” It is to be hoped that the matinee draws a much larger crowd than that which heard last evening’s remarkable performance.

Tickets for tomorrow’s performance may be had at the box-office or online by visiting the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra website.

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