Our music for this week is the Triple Concerto by Beethoven.
You will notice that the recording is from 1970. I am sure that there are many other excellent recordings out there, but this one is head-and-shoulders above the rest because of the musicians involved. David Oistrakh (violin), Mitslav Rostropovich (cello), and Satislav Richter (piano) are three of the best musicians to ever live, and the ability to hear them in their prime is much better than a more recent recording with lesser musicians. This performance was in the Great Tchaikovsky Hall at the Moscow Conservatory, where all three of them studied.
This concerto is rarely played or heard. Part of the reason for that might be relatively unimpressive piano part. Beethoven intentionally made the piano part much simpler because he was writing it for his patron the Archduke Rudolf, who was not a particularly excellent pianist. Beethoven clearly wanted to avoid the embarrassing possibility of writing something that his patron could not play. The violin and cello parts, however, are quite challenging.
Another reason that this concerto is not often played is the clearly inferior thematic material it contains, particularly when compared to his famous 9th Symphony or his magnificent violin concerto. The themes are hard to decipher, and when they can be identified, they tend to wander. The first movement is often criticized because the listener tends to leave the movement wondering what exactly the main melody of the movement was.
However, despite these weaknesses, the Triple Concerto has several things to offer us. First of all, the instrumentation is unique – it is a solo concerto, but the solo part is played by three instruments, rather than one. There are also a number of delightful conversations between each of the soloists and the orchestra. In addition, it is quite impressive that Beethoven was able to maintain his masterful interplay between soloist and orchestra even when dealing with three separate solo parts. I believe that the second movement is the true strength of the work. Listen for the poetic opening line in the cello, and notice how the violin and cello spend most of the movement in a conversation based on that theme. The piano, as expected, maintains a background role in the second movement, and some critics argue that the second movement is the best because it basically eliminates the piano part. The third movement is notable for one unique episode in the middle of it. Right around 27:56, there is a random Polonaise (a Polish dance form). Why Beethoven felt the need to insert this strange addition into the music, we’ll never know.