Most composers come to the concerto with two things in mind: 1) a dramatic con-flict between piano and orchestra; 2) a vehicle to showcase the pianist's skill and bravado. From Mozart on, there are examples in certain movements when neither of those apply, when the aim of composition is to trace poetic contours around life's mystery and melancholy.
For many years, I was attracted to classical music, but since I had grown up basically uncultured, I was always on the outside looking in. Yes, I was drawn to it but couldn't make the full transition to that world. Listening to a Mozart piano sonata or, say, Schumann's Spring Symphony, I felt that something vital was escaping my grasp. I never listened to it as background music...never sipped a glass of red wine while Vivaldi's Four Seasons wove blithe traceries around my head. I was serious about classical music, but I was still a philistine. Couldn't pierce the veil.
Years passed until one night I put on Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5 – “The Emperor.” Was I in a special state of consciousness that evening? Had my emotions been strained to the breaking point, finally giving way so new sensual space could be opened? I'm not sure. That was over 15 years ago. But I do know that I crossed over that night. As a stunned initiate into full experience. And I remember that it was almost a synesthetic experience: the timbres from the various orchestral instruments could almost be tasted, and what Murray Perahia pulled from the piano reached my consciousness more as colors than notes. This was not about structure and form. This was pure sonic mesmerism. God, I wish I could find the words to describe this properly. So I could tell others. Unfold the map for them and point the way, so they can step over the border into wonderland as well.
Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3 is my favorite of all concertos. I have CDs by Vladimir Ashkenazy/Sir George Solti (Chicago), Arthur Rubinstein/Eric Leinsdorf (Boston), Emmanuel Ax/Andre Previn (Royal Philharmonic), and Anna Gourari/Sir Colon Davis (Staatskapelle Dresden). But my prized CD is the oldest – a 1940 recording (mono, of course) by Arthur Rubinstein/Arturo Toscanini (NBC Symphony Orchestra). What's odd about this is that Tosanini is not one of my favored conductors. He was always too strident and muscular in approach. Usually too fast for a given piece to bloom in sufficient rhythmic space. But he and his orchestra do okay in this recording. And they accompany a Rubinstein who was at the top of his game. This pianist had such a way of coaxing tone from the keys. He had a refined, noble aesthetic that could never be taught. It grew from the depths of early 20th-century European soil. Rubinstein was the exemplar in Chopin, and his Beethoven catalog is spotty – he never completed a traversal of the piano sonatas. But this Piano Concerto No. 3 is one for the ages, even with the archival sound.
There is a magical duration occurring in the first movement of this concerto that is unlike anything in all of music. It happens right after the extended cadenza, just before that movement's conclusion. It happens as a rapt moment of suspended time falls on the listener. It happens just as soft timpani strokes and a threnody of strings pulse in the background. Whenever this moment arrives, I am taken somewhere. It only lasts for 15 seconds. But in that brief span, one goes with Beethoven into uncharted spiritual space. Four measures of cascading arpeggio that create a mystical haze.
If you've been heartbroken, if you've grieved over a death, if the colors of summer flowers have ever brought you to trance and tears...for these 15 seconds, the unrequited heart will ease its palpitations, the mournful soul will find balm, the beauty-stricken eye will be daubed dry. These 15 seconds are as close to transcendence as I've ever come. A fragrance of Paradise is on these musical bars. An angel wing is brushing the keyboard ahead of Rubinstein's fingers.
A piano concerto! Not a string quartet or sonata. Who would have ever expected such a thing?
[This CD is now out of circulation, but can be found for a reasonable price. Many other performances are worthy and convey much of the magic in those 15 seconds. I still return to the old one.]