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Beethoven’s improvisatory style is reflected not only in the cadenzas he supplied for his own piano concertos and for Mozart’s famous D minor Concerto K466, but also in his free fantasias and smaller sets of variations. It was common practice in Beethoven’s day—as it had been in Mozart’s—for a composer skilled in the art of improvisation to include a demonstration of his powers when putting on a concert of his own music. On 22 December 1808 Beethoven presented a marathon programme in Vienna that contained not only the first performances of his Fifth and Sixth Symphonies and the Fourth Piano Concerto, but also a fantasia for piano solo, and—designed as the grand climax to the evening’s entertainment—a Fantasy for piano, soloists, chorus and orchestra. The last of these items, the ‘Choral’ Fantasy Op 80, itself began with a piano improvisation which Beethoven wrote down only after the event, when the piece was published; and perhaps he made use of the contents of the solo piano fantasia he had played earlier in the evening when he came to compose his Fantasy Op 77 the following year.
No piece of Beethoven affords a more vivid picture of what his improvisations must have been like than this one. Its first half presents a bewildering succession of musical fragments in contrasting moods, punctuated by rushing scales or arpeggios—almost as though the individual pages of music were being violently torn off. One of those fragments consists of a series of ‘sighing’ two-note phrases forming an expressive melody that is broken off before it can establish itself; another, of a simple folk-like tune that likewise disintegrates before our ears; and a third, of a stormy episode in the minor. The Fantasy’s latter half is a more orderly affair, consisting of a set of variations on a short theme in the luminous key of B major. The final variation introduces descending scale-fragments, so that the ensuing return of the scales from the Fantasy’s beginning draws the various threads of the piece together.
from notes by Misha Donat © 2018