Beethoven's First Piano Concerto with Phillip Bush

Feb 17, 2020

Pianist Phillip Bush
Credit Bradley Fuller, South Carolina Public Radio

Not long after his arrival in Vienna in late 1792, a young Ludwig van Beethoven was beginning to make an impression in the musical city. The Austrian capital had only a year prior lost one of its other famous residents—Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart—and Beethoven showed promising signs of carrying the composer’s legacy forward into a new century. Like Mozart, Beethoven was skilled as both a performer and a composer, using talents in one specialty to highlight those in another. 

According to pianist Phillip Bush, Associate Professor of Piano and Chamber Music at the University of South Carolina School of Music, Beethoven’s early piano concertos are among the works the composer wrote to showcase his talents as a performer. Through them, Phillip says, Beethoven was “making kind of a splash” and “establishing his reputation, really, in Vienna, which was—at that point—the center of the musical universe.”

In these early-period piano works by the composer, the debt to Mozart is unmistakable—even extending to the choice of key signature. Speaking of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1, Phillip notes: “The C major is sort of a nod to a great C major concerto of Mozart’s—the K. 503, which is one of Mozart’s grandest, most majestic--you could even say most Beethoven-like—piano concertos. So, I think there’s a really nice connection between that Mozart work written just a few years before and then this early Beethoven work.”

But Beethoven’s first concerto was more than mere mimicry of Mozart. Phillip points to the composition’s overall length and the key relationships between movements to show how Beethoven was making a few departures from his predecessor’s work. He also finds the stamp of Beethoven in the challenge posed by the piano part.

“Some of the writing for the piano itself just picks up a little bit on the Mozartian idea but just expands it more, pushes the range further out—especially some of the really athletic, bouncy, joyful writing in the third movement which is really a lot of fun (the rondo). I think that goes a good bit beyond the pianistic demands that Mozart usually asks for,” Phillip says.

Especially challenging is one of the cadenzas Beethoven wrote for the first movement of the concerto—the cadenza Phillip has chosen to play for his February 22nd performance of the work alongside the South Carolina Philharmonic. “[The cadenza] was something that he wrote thirteen, fourteen years later in 1809,” Phillip says. “He wrote down a bunch of cadenzas because, at that point, he was starting to go deaf—or, he was well into the process of going deaf and he was beginning to no longer play his music. So, he was, I believe, for posterity trying to notate a lot of these cadenzas that he normally would have perhaps improvised live at the time.”

The cadenza’s length and style place it in juxtaposition not only with the music of Mozart, but also with the music of a younger Beethoven. 

“Stylistically, it’s like a little time travel,” Phillip remarks. You sort of leap ahead about fifteen years, well into the middle period of Beethoven—that kind of more-experimental style. So, you sort of dip into that era before you time travel back to 1795 for the rest of the concerto. It’s a really interesting departure for a few minutes there.”

The concerto’s second movement offers contrast of another kind. “It’s just so lusciously beautiful,” Phillip says of it. “We have to remember that at this point [Beethoven] was a young man. He was a person in his mid-twenties. And it’s astonishing to me that somebody that young could write a slow movement of such tranquil beauty.”

Phillip also finds himself drawn to the way the piano part interacts with the orchestra in the movement. “I think there are also a lot of moments in that second movement which are really almost like chamber music,” Phillip says. “Especially the interplay between the clarinet—it has a really important part in that second movement—and the piano. There’s a lot of conversational aspects between the solo pianist and the clarinetist.”

According to Phillip, the concerto’s second movement is emblematic of Beethoven’s overall output in the way it yields something new with each encounter.   

“Beethoven is that kind of music that is, as Artur Schnabel put it, greater than it can be played. So, it’s rewarding in that sense because you never get to the finish line. There’s always another layer to peel off the onion. Another revelation or just, somehow, another understanding.”

In this interview that aired Friday, February 14th, SC Public Radio’s Bradley Fuller speaks with Phillip Bush about Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and explores a pedagogical lineage that links the pianist to Beethoven himself. Phillip will perform the concerto alongside the South Carolina Philharmonic on Saturday, February 22nd at the Koger Center for the Arts in Columbia.

More information about the concert is available here.