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Emperor of Emperors

Last night in the wee, small hours, I was lying in bed listening to the radio when I heard the familiar strains of the intro to Beethoven’s rightfully beloved Piano Concerto No 5, otherwise known as the “Emperor” concerto. Those who aren’t orchestral music afficionados might know it from this Immortal Beloved scene.

Actually, that scene isn’t quite historically accurate; to begin with, Beethoven never publicly performed the Emperor himself. To wit:

That particular scene did not happen, as Beethoven was no longer playing in public by the time he wrote “The Emperor “. However, an incident DID happen at an earlier concert Beethoven gave.

First, the scene must be set. In Beethoven’s time, there was rarely a conductor when it came to piano concerto performances. The pianist also conducted the orchestra, as the pianist was also usually the composer as well.

There was no electric lighting then; candles and candelabra were used, and the pianist usually played from his own score. Thus, there were usually two candles on the piano to illuminate the score

In a piano concerto there are often huge passages of music where the piano doesn’t play, and it was in one of these places that Beethoven, now CONDUCTING the orchestra, forgot about the two candles, and in an exuberant and sweeping gesture, knocked over both candles, much to the amusement (and laughter) of the audience. Beethoven himself was not amused, but rather mortified. BUT HE DID NOT WALK OFF THE STAGE. He was too busy conducting despite the little mishap.

The incident is related in Alexander Thayer’s biography of Beethoven.

There were somewhat similar incidents, if I remember right (and I may very well not, mind) at the premiere performances of his disastrous Fidelio, the 5th Symphony, and the 9th Symphony.

Now as y’all know, I am regularly annoyed by the contemporary tendency, on the part of players and conductors alike, to rampage through their arrangements as if the primary objective was not to do the compositions justice, nor even to just bring some wonderful music to life for the audience, but simply to get through the piece as fast as they possibly can. As if they were on some kind of clock or timer or something, or maybe that they thought there was a cash prize for the quickest time.

Happily, in the version of the Emperor I heard last night there was no sign of any such madness. It was so perfectly executed I actually crawled out of bed and rolled over to the iMac to crank the volume up loud before the first movement was done, waving my arms over my head madly as if I was leading the orchestra myself. It really was that good. Even in the third movement, the Rondo/Allegro, the pianist refused to rush or otherwise molest the piece. All the joy and majesty of Beethoven’s essential staple for the piano repertoire was captured and transmitted to the listener’s ear flawlessly, with conductor Vladimir Jurowski leading the Staatskapelle Dresden with faithful attention to pianist Hélène Grimaud’s lead.

The whole thing was as thrilling an example of artistic collaboration and cooperation between soloist, conductor, and orchestra as I ever did hear. And believe you me, I’ve heard plenty over lo, these many years.

After I had found the below vid on YewToob and cued it up for an encore, I then set out to learn more about this Grimaud woman; I’d heard of her before, but didn’t know much about her beyond what she’d just shown me with her masterful rendition of the Emperor. From her own website:

Talking at the time of recording, conductor Vladimir Jurowski commented “For me the most admirable and also the most unusual thing about Hélène’s music making is the spontaneity – in the moment of music-making its born anew…and that’s why it’s always an extremely gripping adventure to make music with her.”

Reviewing the album The London Times wrote “this Emperor concerto ditches the monument approach for the excitements of febrile drama and crisp attack” and the Philadelphia Enquirer commented “The star of the disc is Helene Grimaud, and rightly so: She usually has a firm intellectual and technical grasp on whatever she’s performing, and that’s particularly the case here. It’s penetrating, dry-eyed Beethoven rendered with such technical clarity that you realize there’s even more to the piece than what usually meets the ears.”

Even that effusive praise doesn’t do the lady justice, if you ask me. Listen for yourself and see if you don’t agree.

Well blast it, another vid you might have to click over to YewToob to watch, looks like. Ah well, it’s definitely worth the trip.

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