The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment prides itself on its ability to recreate the musical past, but the concert at which Beethoven premiered his fourth piano concerto was stranger than anything that could be recreated today.
For the massive programme in Vienna on 22 December 1808 also included premieres of Beethoven’s fifth symphony, his sixth symphony, and his Opus 80 fantasia for piano, chorus and orchestra, plus parts of his Mass in C, plus a solo improvisation. It was very cold, people wanted to get home, and didn’t register the concerto as anything special: only when Mendelssohn rescued it from oblivion twenty-five years later did the wider world realise its quality.
But this Southbank concert had one trump card: Portuguese soloist Artur Pizarro would play a fortepiano, and thus bring us sonically close to the original 1808 experience. Because, like the piano Beethoven would have played, the fortepiano has a wooden frame and small, leather-headed hammers which give a sharper attack and richer overtones than that of the modern concert grand; unlike the latter’s even timbre and powerful bass, the fortepiano’s subtle sound changes colour as you go up the keyboard. To use this for Beethoven’s fourth concerto, with its dramatic tug-of-war between soloist and orchestra, represents an unusual experiment.
And from his gentle opening chords, it was clear Pizarro would take us somewhere new. In this version, the concerto became a duet, not a duel, with piano and orchestra conversing in the same sound-world. There was indeed drama in the slow movement, which Liszt likened to Orpheus taming his wild beasts, but here the characters in that drama were built on the same scale. Pizarro’s clarity of touch and crystalline passage-work made a lovely foil to the OAE strings’ gutsy, down-home sound; this normally so-familiar work came across as completely new. But there’s no way a fortepiano could replace the modern grand: its palette is too limited, particularly for Beethoven in heroic mode.
The rest of this concert was as heady as you would expect, with the ebullient Roy Goodman on the podium in place of the lately-deceased Sir Charles Mackerras, to whose memory the evening was dedicated. Mozart’s Symphony No 40 and Schubert’s ‘Tragic’ Symphony were capped with an endearing encore, in which the overture to Mozart’s ‘Figaro’ was given a Forties dance-band make-over.Reuse content