I have had a love affair with a piece of music for almost sixty years. I am talking about Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 4 in G. There are so many details in this masterwork that transport me to a very special place of sheer joy, especially the opening fourteen measures–a magical introduction to a very great work that in performance lasts some 38 precious seconds.
Like the genius he is, Beethoven breaks with tradition by having the piano begin with a solo. What he uses–something conclusively known from his sketchbooks and clearly audible to anyone familiar with Beethoven’s music–is a serene, gentle version of the fate motive with which his Symphony no. 5 begins.
At the very start, we hear the pitch of b as a melody note supported by G major chord. But when the orchestra softly and sweetly comes in, that same pitch of b is now part of a B major chord–an absolutely magical touch. And before we know it, we have been brought back ever so gently to the home key of G.
There are some wonderful recordings of this piece. The one I first heard, in the 1940’s, features a performance by the great Artur Schnabel and the Philharmonia Orchestra under Issay Dobrowen. A more recent performance that I own and treasure is part of the Complete Piano Concertos with Alfred Brendel and the Chicago Symphony conducted by James Levine. Another performance, whose opening takes my breath away, is by Krystian Zimerman and the Vienna Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein, near the end of his life.
Any one of these would be an asset to own and listen to repeatedly.