Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5 (“Emperor”)
What is most striking about the Emperor is its size. A good deal longer than the Fifth Symphony, it approaches in breadth of form and proportion the manner of the Eroica and is surely to be placed alongside that symphony and the Fifth as a member of triumvirate that virtually defines the period. As in the Fourth Concerto, the work begins with the soloist, but here with much more flamboyance, a tactic repeated at the recapitulation and to which Beethoven makes reference again at the point of cadenza.
The orchestra ritornello consists of a succession of some five attractive thematic ideas, among which the loveliest may be the cascading eighths in the winds, answered by a staccato mirror image in the strings, just before the ritornello’s end. The pianist, despite having little new thematic material, is given strokes of great drama: the chromatic scale and long trill that overlap the final cadence of the ritornello, for example, and passage through the distant key areas. The cadenza is modest, as if to compensate for the long improvisations before, and is written out; the orchestra responds with the horn calls from the ritornello. But there is no struggle in this movement, as there is in the Fifth Symphony: “the battle,” one authority remarks, “seems to be won even before the forces have been drawn up.”
The second movement is in the distant key of B major. It is a reflective movement, willing to delay forward progress to linger over details of voicing and motive. The orchestral chorale is succeeded by new material in triplets in the piano, leading to a brief excursion into D major. But the chorale predominates, and in two successive statements, the soloist and ensemble (especially the solo winds) weave into its fabric rich textures and hues. A long pedal point begins in French horns when the bassoons sink a half-step. The soloist appears to experiment rather aimlessly with material for a rondo. Suddenly, as though having found the solution, the pianist lights out in the theme of the third movement—not so much a hunt rondo, this, as the stuff of bejeweled noblesse at play in the drawing rooms of old Vienna. The persistence of the dotted rhythmic figure propels the movement ever forward, through an expansive episode at the center. It begins to conclude by a winding down in the timpani and piano; then the fancy rolling passagework in the solo part—heard once before—introduces a last exclamation by the orchestra.
You are wondering why it is called the “Emperor Concerto.” Nobody knows for sure.