Monday 23 September 2019

The concerto that couldn't be bettered



George Hamilton

The clever car radio was telling me I was listening to Beethoven's one and only violin concerto. The music was certainly familiar, but what was the piano doing there?

Behind its presence lies a tale. Beethoven was a masterful pianist, but there's no record of any similar proficiency on the violin.

Still, he did write the most beautiful music for the instrument, and he was well enough acquainted with top players to have been encouraged to write specifically for them.

But there was only ever the one violin concerto, and there may be good reason why.

The story begins in late 1806, when Beethoven was commissioned to compose a concerto for the annual Christmas benefit concert at Vienna's Theater an der Wien.

Franz Clement, the theatre's musical director and leader of its orchestra, would be the soloist.

The playbill advertises a programme opening with new music by the French composer Étienne Méhul, and also featuring compositions by Mozart, Handel, and Cherubini.

Before a concluding choral set piece, Clement would improvise, then play a sonata of his on one string, holding his violin upside down!

The Beethoven concerto would already have been heard by then.

It didn't go down too well, by all accounts, with one critic venting frustration at "the endless repetitions of a few commonplace passages (that) could easily lead to weariness".

With the benefit of hindsight, it's easy enough to see that it was probably ahead of its time, a Romantic concerto presented when the melodies of Haydn, the arch-classicist, lingered on. Whatever the reason, the concerto was heading nowhere. It ended up as a final addition to a deal with Muzio Clementi, the Italian composer and piano maker who also had an interest in a London publishing house.

As well as his Fourth Symphony, the Fourth Piano Concerto, and the Razumovsky Quartets, Clementi got the British rights to Beethoven's Violin Concerto.

No doubt aware of the less than enthusiastic reception it had received on its premiere just a matter of months before, Clementi included in the contract a stipulation that Beethoven provide a piano version of the violin concerto as well, something that was much more likely to sell.

The result suggests Beethoven was none too enamoured of the task. There have even been suggestions that he farmed it out to a hack composer.

The solo violin part is basically transcribed into a lower register, with piano chords added as accompaniment.

They are two such different instruments - the violin soaring and sustaining, the piano percussive by nature - that a mere transcription was never going to suffice.

Heard on the keyboard, the contrast with the depth of the five concerti Beethoven wrote for the piano could not be more stark.

What's seen now as one of the masterpieces of the violin repertoire is but a pale shadow of itself.

That's not to say there isn't pleasure in hearing Beethoven's music in a different guise. But it does remind you of an old saying - if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

Beethoven undoubtedly knew best. And it's tempting to think that the whole experience with his first violin concerto led him to the conclusion that it should also be his last.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday

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