Emanuel Ax will join the San Francisco Symphony this week to perform a work that a very young Beethoven played, hoping to make a splash in Vienna – as both a composer and performer. The Piano Concerto No. 2 was actually written before what we know of as his first Piano Concerto (C Major) but Ax says it has all the drama and inventiveness that Beethoven would become known for as he matured.
“Most of the early music is showing off… both pianistically and compositionally,” Ax explains. “I can’t imagine what people must have thought when he came to Vienna and started playing this music, they must have gone berserk!” It was a time when composers who were performers were getting their fame by playing with pyrotechnical skill. “As good as piano playing was, from people… obviously, like Mozart and Clementi and so forth, I don’t think anything of that magnitude and sheer velocity had ever been heard.” He kept to some of the conventions of the day, but showed his creativity. “It’s an extremely inventive piece, I think. There are these wonderful moments of stillness that go off into a very weird key. And that happens in this piece twice, and he uses that later on in what we know as the first concerto. There are also very difficult and inventive pianistic things in the first movement, and very difficult skips, and so forth in the last. I think the slow movement is very inspired, very beautiful, deeply felt. I think it’s a fabulous piece.” Several years after premiering the piece, he revised the first movement cadenza. “It sounds a little bit like spots in the Hammerklavier. And a lot of fugal technique. Very weird harmonies, and very inventive and dramatic. The cadenza is special, I think. I know it doesn’t quite fit the piece, and when you finish this cadenza, and then you get this little playout, it sounds incredibly weird, actually. Because it has nothing to do with what came before. But it’s hard to resist playing this cadenza. It’s too good to miss.”