Hyperion Records

Triple Concerto in C major, Op 56
‘Did he who wrote the Ninth write thee?’ The glib paraphrase of Blake by one writer from the first half of the last century is not at all untypical of the way in which Beethoven’s affable Triple Concerto has been dispraised over the years. Yet despite its relative unpopularity with musicologists suspicious of its apparent lack of typically Beethovenian punch, the work has retained a place in the repertoire, and along with Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for violin and viola, and Brahms’s Double Concerto for violin and cello, is one of very few post-Baroque concertos for more than one soloist still to receive anything like regular performance.

It enjoyed a fair number of outings in Beethoven’s day too, despite the appearance of having been carefully tailored to suit the particular talents of its original interpreters. Composed in 1803–04, it was intended for Beethoven’s patron and piano pupil Archduke Rudolph, a good musician but a player of relatively modest ability, and thus it is that the piano-writing, for all its elegance and good taste, lacks the kind of difficulty found in the solo concertos. The violin and cello parts, on the other hand, were written for top professional virtuosi – the violinist Carl August Siedler and the cellist and composer Anton Kraft, the man for whom Haydn had composed his D major Concerto – and this is reflected in the more technically demanding role these instruments are given. This was the line-up for the work’s private premiere in 1804, and further performances followed with various combinations of soloists until the work was finally heard at a public concert for the first time in May 1808. Unfortunately it made a poor impression on that occasion, falling early victim (judging from the report of Beethoven’s friend Schindler) to performers who ‘undertook it too lightly’.

To more modern-day dismissals of the Triple Concerto as ‘weak’ Beethoven, the Twentieth-century writer Hans Keller once offered the answer that ‘we have perhaps come to realise that Beethoven’s imperfections are not lack of perfections, but absence of completeness – in view of things to come’. What was to come in this case, and soon, was the Fourth Piano Concerto and the Violin Concerto, both of them works whose laid-back spaciousness, and a few other details besides, owe something to the expansive nature of the Triple Concerto.

More importantly, however, the Triple Concerto has glories of its own. The very opening is quietly original, its first theme being announced mysteriously by cellos and basses on their own before becoming the basis of a drawn-out orchestral crescendo. It is with this theme that the soloists eventually enter one-by-one, but the movement has a wealth of melodic material as well as a few surprises, not the least being the triumphantly loud return to the main theme after the central development section.

The Largo (in A flat major) is lyrical and uncomplicated, its mood of tranquillity set by a sublime opening cello solo, while the way in which it leads directly to the finale places it in the same category as its counterparts in the Violin Concerto and the Fourth Piano Concerto. The finale itself is a boisterous Rondo in the style of a polonaise, a familiar enough style to us now thanks to Chopin, but in Beethoven’s day a dance whose place in art-music was relatively new. The Polish flavour reaches its height in an ebullient episode about midway through, but the whole movement has a freshness and a vigour which make it a fitting conclusion to this relaxed yet expertly crafted work.

from notes by Lindsay Kemp © 2005

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