Beethoven Piano Co. No. 4 – Doug Bauman

My impressions of the Beethoven Piano Co. No. 4, performed last weekend by Garrick Ohlsson and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Manfred Honeck:  I was pleased with the performance, by Ohlsson and all of the members of the PSO. I was impressed by Honeck's mannerisms. I can't quite describe them yet, but they have a certain style, and I will try to put my finger on it in later, but to note: when he stands straight and tall with baton held high, expect the orchestra to respond in kind with a wonderfully explosive musical expression. Honeck comes across as humble in person when speaking, but his real expressions come when he is conducting.

The first movement seemed to contain some parts or additional phrases I've not heard before in the many times I've listened to prerecorded versions of this concerto. Is this my imagination?

The second movement was very moving. The fullness of the strings and the orchestra immediately brought the kind of force to my ears which never fails to impress. Often, the soft piano was interleaving with the orchestra like a gentle stream flowing through a mountain pass.

In the program notes, I read that this particular concerto was full of surprises for its time. Beethoven was a creative individualist — just the quality I like; an artist that is anxious to "break the mold at every opportunity," how refreshing!. The beginning of the concerto forged a change in style. One thing mentioned was that our beloved composer changed the 'key' from the first few beginning phrases of the piano, to the entry of the orchestra, and that that represented the kind of change that was readily noticed by the first to listen to this concerto, Beethoven's early audience.

Here is my dilemma. I have very little training in music theory. I do know where each note is on a keyboard, and can readily play compositions with my right hand only, but the notion of a 'key' has somehow escaped my understanding for quite a long time. For a music lover like myself, it wasn't necessary for my enjoyment. Out of curiosity, I picked up a 'dummies' guide to music theory. I read through the entire description of keys and notions of major and minor. My first thought was that perhaps this is a notion which makes it easier for musicians to play their instruments. Just like computer can interpret instructions, the musician can interpret the notes, with the context being the 'key'. Context is a useful thing for any profession.

Key seemed to also denote the actual sets of tones of the set of notes being described. I must hand it to musicians, I find the whole notation and concepts quite difficult to grasp. Being originally an electrical engineer, I do know a little about frequencies and harmonics. I think the notions represented by 'key' could just as easily been represented by mathematical concepts related to the frequency of each note, and the relationships they all hold with respect to each other.

My contention is that I don't necessarily need to know much about 'keys' to understand and enjoy music. None of us in the audience need to know these concepts. I am sure there are quite a few out there that are conversant in this music theory, but I am not addressing them, there are likely more who do not. I am not turned off when I read the kind of description related in the program notes, I accept them as an 'extra' bit of biographical context to the music we are about to hear. But my take on the music is going to always be how it relates to my ears and mind. And of course being a live performance I get to see the performance as well.

So when I read that the 'key' change was interpreted by early listeners as 'really wrong' I am curious. Why? — because I didn't detect a 'key' change at all. I went back to a recording I have on CD and listened again to the opening over and over. I tried to direct my mind to detect this key change that was described. But I cannot. I don't hear it. I think it is because the change in 'key' is an absolute change in the base frequency. Yet my mind is tuned to relative notes. I hear the exact sequence of notes being played because, relative to each other, they are equal algebraic multiples away from each other — sort of my own musical theory of relativity. I don't necessarily hear the absolute frequencies, but the relationships of the sets of notes to one another in a particular phrase. If the same phrase is repeated in different key, then to me, it was the same phrase, sounding just a good as the original.

I wonder if these 'original' listeners to Beethoven, especially those who were critics or music reviewers some 200 years ago, are perhaps a minority. I wonder if perhaps there were many others, who like me, simply sat back and enjoyed the music. But when they read the press, unlike me, they were told that the aforementioned 'key' change was 'really wrong' or 'simply wrong' and did not conform to the typical opening of a concerto. So, like people of today, perhaps they let that information bias or distort their view. And forever more, we will believe that the 'consensus' of that time was that Beethoven was different, and therefore a bit 'mad'.

That's the kind of madness I call genius, I wish I had a bit of it myself.

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Nov 25