Yesterday afternoon, I went to a concert with my best friend to hear the Chicago Symphony Orchestra play a wonderful program which included Beethoven’s “Triple Concerto” in C major for piano, violin, and cello, Op. 56. The piece itself, while not among the greatest of Beethoven’s works, nevertheless has some truly wonderful and beautiful moments, and the cello part is written with a real understanding of the lyrical qualities of the instrument. Beethoven is sometimes criticized for being a less-than-inspired melodist, and he was indeed not the most gifted melodist, but was certainly capable of writing beautiful melodies, and most especially for the cello, as he did in is his cello sonatas, and in this work.
For me, the biggest surprise of the afternoon was the performance of the cellist, Kenneth Olsen, the CSO’s Assistant Principle Cello, simply because I had never heard him perform before, nor had I heard any reviews of his playing. From the very first notes of the solo cello part in the first movement, I knew his playing would be something special. His tone was impeccable, and I especially appreciated how both he and the CSO’s Associate Concertmaster, violinist Stephanie Jeong musically handled their transition with a slight hesitation just before and into the piano’s opening entrance after a lovely duet at the beginning of the piece, which again returned later in the recapitulation of the first movement. Jonathan Biss’ performance on the piano was outstanding – energetic, beautiful in tone, and powerful when called for. As a pianist myself, I especially appreciate his obvious love of playing not only in the tone he produces from the piano, but also in his body language, which shows he is truly at one with the music. I was once criticized by a piano teacher for involving too much of my body while playing, being told it is “wasted energy” – that all of my energy needed to be in my fingers, with the rest of my body relaxed. I felt a little vindicated yesterday as I watched Jonathan Biss’ perfect performance, with plenty of body language – none of which detracted from his perfect execution of the music.
One aspect of the performance I found curious was the setup itself. Even before the soloists came out, I was puzzled by the placing of the piano in the center, with the podium for the cello directly to the left of the piano, effectively to the back of the pianist, and the violinist’s music stand directly to the left of the cello podium, behind the cellist. In normal piano trio setups, the three musicians can see each other, in a kind of triangle formation, and I found the setup in which the musicians could not see each other detracted from the integrity of the trio ensemble as a unit. Jonathan Biss had to lean back on occassion to ensure he and the cellist Kenneth Olsen were together.
Beethoven’s “Triple Concerto” as it has come to be known, was composed between 1803-1804, and was one of the fourteen compositions Beethoven dedicated to his patron, friend, and student, Archduke Rodolph, who studied both piano and composition with Beethoven. While himself not a great composer, Rudolph was a respectable enough pianist to handle the solo piano part of the “Triple Concerto,” which he apparently played at the first performance of the work in 1808. Like some of Beethoven’s compositions, even including some of his most famous ones like his fifth and ninth symphonies, this work is not a perfect work, but has many beautiful moments. With Beethoven, it is my feeling he sometimes loses sight of the whole, while perfecting many parts of that whole in his compositions. This does not make these works “bad” pieces, as even Beethoven at less than perfect is still better than most every other composer. There were times I feel he could have had the entire piano trio play as a unit alone more often and treat the trio ensemble more as a unit in general, throughout the piece, rather than treating them as three individual soloists in which a theme is stated with the cello and the violin together, then in the piano alone, doubling the dimensions of the piece, and making the first movement feel like an entire concerto in and of itself. In fact, the first movement was so long, and the end of the movement so grand, much of the audience applauded, not realizing perhaps there were still two-thirds of the piece to go.
The technical problem with composing a concerto for three instruments so unlike each other is the composer has to strike a balance between the three and they must be perfectly integrated as a whole within the musical context of the work, which Beethoven sometimes succeeds in doing, and other times, not so much. What the work essentially sounds like is a cello concerto, since the cello almost always takes the lead, with obbligato piano and violin. So, there sometimes feels like a lack of homogeneity in the work, in which there is an imbalance between the three instruments, which I do not hear in perhaps the two other most famous concertos for more than one instrument – Mozart’s “Sinfonia Concertante,” in E-flat major for violin and viola, K. 364, and Bach’s “Double Violin Concerto in D minor,” BWV 1043. Of course, with these two concerti, the instruments are more easily integrated since in Bach’s concerto, he is writing for two violins, and in the Mozart “Sinfonia Concertante,” he is writing for violin and viola, which are more like each other than the violin and the cello.
One of the most impressive qualities of Beethoven, is how he is able to succeed even when he does not entirely succeed. The overall power and message of his work, as found in the “Triple Concerto,” and his fifth and ninth symphonies, overshadow any technical or formal flaws in the works themselves. For a lesser composer these flaws would be fatal. For Beethoven, he transcends any flaws by sheer determination and supreme mastery throughout the majority of the work in which there are no flaws. This is what Beethoven did best – he could take a weakness and still come out victorious, whether it was in composition or in dealing with what would have been a career-ending disability for virtually any other composer. He could take a compositional flaw and still manage to succeed in the overall power of his message, just as he managed despite his deafness to emerge victorious, instead of letting it defeat him.