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As Beethoven’s reputation as a composer came to match his fame as a pianist, he began introducing his large-scale compositions in ambitious musical academies. The most sprawling of these concerts came on December 22, 1808, at the Theater an der Wien, when Beethoven programmed his Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, three movements from his Mass in C, a Fantasia for solo piano, a concert aria, the Choral Fantasia, and the present work, the Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58.

Johann Friedrich Reichardt, a well-known musical traveler, writer, and former music director to the King of Prussia, happened to be in the theater that night, as a guest of one of Beethoven’s patrons. Reichardt was no musical conservative – he helped cultivate the German art song, paving the way for Schubert – but even he had trouble listening to four hours of Beethoven’s new music. “I accepted the kind offer of Prince Lobkowitz to let me sit in his box with hearty thanks,” Reichardt remembered. “There we continued, in the bitterest cold, too, from half past six to half past ten, and experienced the truth that one can easily have too much of a good thing – and still more of a loud.”

“It was with the Fourth Concerto, in G major, that the ultimate of condensation, of unity with the solo exposition, of imagination, and of discipline was attained,” wrote the pianist Glenn Gould. This might seem like a surprising statement, especially when the Third Concerto, with its stormy C minor paralleling the Fifth Symphony, and the Fifth Concerto, characterized as it is by breadth and nobility, have tended to overshadow their more understated companion. But just listen to the unanimity of purpose between soloist and orchestra as the Fourth Concerto opens, with the piano making itself heard from the silence and the strings stealing in as its first utterance fades away. 

Or witness the careful construction of the dialogue between soloist and orchestra in the slow movement, a movement so imaginative that commentators gripped by fantasy have sought a program where none was intended, suggesting, for example, the dialogue of Orpheus (soloist) and the Furies (orchestra) at the gates of the underworld. Another legendary pianist, the German Wilhelm Kempff, wrote that “On the two pages of full score which this movement occupies, there are few notes. Instead there are many rests, which sit like black, sinister birds on the lines of the music, signs signifying a silence which takes the breath away.”

From the depths of the slow movement’s E-minor gloom, the main theme of the rondo-finale scurries in, shy and playful at first, but soon assuming an assertive, almost bellicose character. Orpheus reappears in a brief moment of melodic repose in a patch of thematic material that returns throughout the movement to counterbalance the opening’s more martial character. — John Mangum