Ludwig van Beethoven‘s Triple Concerto is a unique work that rightly ranks among Beethoven’s masterpieces. The choice of solo instruments effectively makes it a concerto for piano trio, and it is the composer’s only concerto for more than one solo instrument. It was written in 1803, and published by Breitkopf & Hartel in 1804. Anton Schindler, Beethoven’s early biographer, claimed that this concerto was composed for his pupil, Archduke Rudolf of Austria, a member of the imperial family. At the time the Archduke, who would later became an accomplished pianist and composer under Beethoven’s tutelage, was only 14 years old, and it seems plausible that Beethoven sought to write a spectacular but relatively simple piano part, that would be backed up by two more mature and skilled soloists. However, there is no evidence of Rudolf ever performing this work in public, and in the published version the concerto bears a dedication to a different patron, Prince Lobkowitz, also a patron of the composer. The Triple Concerto was first performed publicly in 1808 at the Augarten summer concerts in Vienna. At the premiere, the violin part was played by Carl August Seidler and the cellist was Nikolaus Kraft, known for his ‘technical mastery’ and ‘clear, rich tone’. This was Beethoven’s first work to use advanced cello techniques..
The Triple Concerto is atypical of Beethoven’s time, when the instrumental concerto genre assumed one or two soloists. If in the Baroque era it was perfectly natural for the concerto grosso genre to have a ‘competition’ between groups of soloists and the orchestra, later concertos in which an ensemble, rather than a soloist, plays with the orchestra are extremely rare. The three instruments are three human voices, and this is usually how the work is characterised by music criticics. In its title, when listing the instruments, the violin is mentioned first, but the cello is actually given the leading role – all the themes and all the movements begin with it, its part being the most complex of all. As if with a human, warm voice, the cello sounds first, then the violin sublimely sings, and finally the piano rises with its universal timbre. The trickiest part of Beethoven’s triple concerto is achieving ensemble: both between the soloists themselves and in their interplay with the orchestra. In performing the work, it is of utmost importance that the musicians profess an aesthetic. At the same time, however, there must necessarily be a transition from the single element to different states.
The first movement of the concert is broadly scaled, cast at a moderate march tempo. It includes decorative solo passages and leisurely repetitions, variations and expansions of assorted themes. In this movement, as in the other two, the cello goes solo with the first theme. Unusually for a concerto of this scale, the movement begins quietly, with a gradual crescendo in exposition, with the main theme later introduced by the soloists. Also unusual is the modulation of the exposition to minor rather than the expected solo major.
The slow second movement – in A-flat major – is a kind of sweeping introduction to the finale, which follows without pause. The cello and violin share the melodic material of the movement between them, while the piano provides discreet accompaniment.
There is no pause between the second and third movements, which begin with dramatic repeated tones. It is written in the form of a polonaise (also called ‘polacca’), an emblem of aristocratic fashion in Napoleon’s time, which corresponds to the manner of ‘polite entertainment’ that characterises this concerto in general. The bolero-like rhythm, also characteristic of the polonaise, can be heard in the central minor theme of the final movement. In addition to the soloists playing violin, cello and piano, the concerto also includes 1 flute, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 3 bassoons, 2 French horns, 2 trumpets, timpani and strings. The flutes, oboes, trumpets and timpani are silent during the second movement.
Beethoven’s Triple Concerto is performed relatively rarely. The reason is that it is quite difficult to find and unite three virtuoso soloists. Famous interpreters of this Beethoven masterpiece include: David Oistrakh, Mstislav Rostropovich and Sviatoslav Richter, led by conductors such as Kirill Kondrashin or Herbert von Karajan; Isaac Stern, Leonard Rose and Eugene Istomin with the Philadelphia Philharmonic conducted by Eugene Ormandy; and Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma and Daniel Barenboim (soloist and conductor) with the Berlin Philharmonic. Each new generation has taken great care in the performance traditions of the Triple Concerto, but at the same time brought faster tempi and fiery energy to its interpretation. In Beethoven’s letters we can often find two concepts – ‘joy’ and ‘suffering’. These were, for him, the two opposite poles of human existence. Achieving joy, according to the composer, is only possible through suffering. This is his philosophical credo, for him joy is the ultimate goal of all existence, something the whole world strives for. Therefore, the idea of joy and the unification of people in striving towards it as something sublime is present in this work quite naturally. The composer was only 33-34 when he composed his Triple Concerto, but his music sounds as if he were considerably younger. It is so free and freewheeling, as if Beethoven were in his early twenties, an age when all doors still seemed open to him.