Triple Concerto

Ludwig van Beethoven

Triple Concerto in C major

Op. 56

Recommended recording

Curated by Guy Jones, Head of Curation

About this work

Beethoven's "Triple" Concerto is often treated as the less brilliant sibling of the more imposing works composed around the same time: Fidelio, the Fourth Piano Concerto, the Violin Concerto, and the Fourth Symphony. It is important to note that this work was written with an amateur pianist in mind: the relatively simple piano part was designed for Beethoven's patron, the Archduke Rudolf; nevertheless, professional musicians are required for the brutal cello part and the less difficult -- but still quite challenging -- violin part. The work was not premiered until 1808, failed to go over well, and has received limited attention ever since. The themes do tend to wander, their development is rather haphazard, and there are no showy cadenzas; in the work's favor, the subtle effects for the soloists and their imaginative interplay with the orchestra must be noted. The concerto follows all the expected patterns. The first movement, Allegro, is in sonata form, with the principal themes laid out by the orchestra before the soloists put in an appearance. The first theme is optimistic, elegant, mildly striving, but completely unpretentious: almost a German walking tune. The two string soloists come in with their version of the first theme, which is soon taken up by the piano with the strings playing a subsidiary role. The soloists develop this material sometimes individually, sometimes the strings alternating with the piano, and sometimes in conjunction with various components of the orchestra. In general, though, only one soloist takes the spotlight at a time, if only for a few bars. This polite turn-taking stretches the movement beyond the point its thematic material merits, the inventive dialogue among the instruments almost compensating for the thin content. The second movement, Largo, is far more compact. Written in A flat major, this movement is highly cantabile and poetic, with the cello first singing out the theme at some length. The piano offers some atmospheric support, while the two string soloists handle most of the lingering, effusive lyricism. Clouds pass over during a minor mode episode imposed by the orchestra near the end, but the soloists modulate back to the major for a seamless transition into the finale, a Rondo alla Polacca. The "Polish" designation has to do with the rhythm rather than any appropriations of folk tunes. The movement begins sweetly enough, though with some tough turns for the string players. Spirits rise through the remainder of the rondo, with a light but distinctly pulsing rhythm (there is nevertheless an obvious polonaise right in the middle of it all) and several instances of rapid passagework for the string soloists. The trio rushes through a penultimate breakneck episode, but slows down for its last, dance-like section while the orchestra keeps trying to cut in with a big, affirmative conclusion.