Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major, Op. 19

First two movements composed 1787–1789, finale composed in 1795

I. Allegro con brio
II. Adagio
III. Rondo. Molto allegro

Maurizio Pollini (piano), Wiener Philharmoniker, Eugen Johum


Opus number and internal numbering give it away: the B-flat major concerto is Beethoven's second piano concerto. This is what it says in every concert programme and on every CD cover. However, the order is quite different if we look at its genesis: the concerto in B-flat major is actually Beethoven's first piano concerto. He composed an early version of op. 19 in Bonn, possibly even at the end of the 1780s, at the latest in 1790. Its numbering as the "Second Piano Concerto" has to do with its performance history. At the beginning of his time in Vienna, Beethoven showed off with a "very new" concerto, the C Major Concerto op. 15 (the "First Piano Concerto"). At the same time he revised the older B-flat major concerto.

In the 1790s Beethoven gave many public performances of a piano concerto in Vienna, Prague, Berlin and Pre?burg. Unfortunately we do not always know which of these two first piano concertos he played. He might have played an earlier version of the concerto op. 19 in an academy of his teacher Haydn on 19.12.1795. The first performance of the concerto of which we are absolutely certain was in October 1798. Beethoven set off on a concert tour to Prague and took the third edition of op. 19 with him. In Prague he wrote it down again, in the fourth definitive version. This is the one he performed together with op. 15.



For almost two centuries, the original version of the Piano Concerto No. 2 was assigned to the year 1794, when Beethoven was 23 and needed a showpiece for his public debut in Vienna. He did introduce it in the Court Theater on March 29, 1795, during the Lenten season when Hapsburg Catholicism banned all theatrical activity. But latter-day scholarship has determined that most of the B flat Concerto—certainly the first two movements—were written at Bonn in 1789 and 1790, three years after his curtailed first visit to Vienna, but three before his return in November 1792, with a letter of introduction from Count Ferdinand Waldstein and an invitation to study with Haydn. In other words, he was as young as Chopin when the latter composed his first concerto (which, further in common with Beethoven's B flat, was published out of sequence as No. 2). Whether or not Haydn saw it during the 14 contentious months that Beethoven was his pupil, we don't know.

Beethoven revised the concerto to include a new finale during his study year with Haydn. This was this version he introduced in 1795 and then further revised in 1798 for Prague, giving it still another finale. (The "official" First Concerto in C, published as Op. 15, wasn't composed until 1797.) To keep the B flat for his own use, he left the solo part un-notated until the Leipzig publisher Hoffmeister agreed to buy the work in 1801, for half the price of a new sonata. The composer didn't haggle: "I really don't give [it] out as one of my best....Still, it will not disgrace you in any way to publish it."

Although the B flat has come down to us as one of the two runts in Beethoven's concerto litter (along with the "Triple"), it is nonetheless a work of substantial charm and considerable elegance, with several Haydn-like surprises including an abundance of themes. In the opening Allegro con brio movement, however, he followed Classical rules, concentrating on the two principal subjects of a double exposition (by the orchestra first, next by the soloist), then a development section, and finally a recapitulation. The main themes in their cheerful confidence are distinctly Beethoven's, though their working-out is clearly influenced not only by Haydn but also by the recently departed Mozart. The middle movement—Adagio, in E flat major—hints at the slow movement of the Fourth Concerto to come a decade later. It is, in effect, an accompanied fantasia that resembles a carefree theme and variations, with an attention-getting solo recitative-like passage at the end. The twice-rewritten finale, Molto allegro, combines sonata and rondo forms, with perhaps the nicest surprise of all saved for last: a brief solo rumination which the orchestra brusquely interrupts with a terminal tantara.

(All Music Guide)