I. Allegro con brio II. Largo III. Rondo. Allegro
New research suggests that the Third Piano Concerto was sketched in 1802 and completed early in 1803, three years later than previously believed. The middle work among Beethoven’s five piano concertos, it looks both backward and forward: backward to Mozart, whose own C-minor concerto (K. 491) was a very noticeable influence; and forward to the radical innovations of the last two concertos. Also, the key of C minor held a very deep personal meaning for Beethoven as his “tragic” tonality. The line of great C-minor works, which already included the earlier “Pathétique” Sonata and the String Quartet op. 18, No. 4, leads through the C-minor concerto to such later masterpieces as the Fifth Symphony and the last piano sonata (op. 111).
The opening Allegro con brio movement of the concerto starts with a military motif played by the strings in unison. Out of this almost banal material and a contrasting, lyrical second theme, Beethoven created an elaborate movement in which each thematic component is subjected to extensive thematic development. One of the most remarkable moments comes at the end when, after the cadenza, the pianist doesn’t drop out but instead continues with sixteenth-note passages against the timpani playing part of the main theme.
The melody of the second-movement Largo is simple in itself, but the lavish ornamentation it receives makes it shine with special splendor. The enchanting parallel thirds of the pianist’s second solo entrance further add to the magic, and the repeated sudden modulations into remote keys increase the dramatic tension. The movement ends with a soft, lyrical coda, cut short by a single fortissimo chord. The tonality of this slow movement, E major, is very distant from the original key of C minor. It is a most unusual key relationship – and Brahms duplicated it exactly in his First Symphony.
Given the distance between the two keys, Beethoven felt the need to build a “bridge” between the two, making use of the fact that the notes G-sharp (which occurs in E major) and A flat (which belongs to C minor), are one and the same. He emphasises this pitch both at the end of the second movement and at the beginning of the third, making the transition almost imperceptible. The Rondo itself combines a playful rhythmic scheme with a melody built around the diminished seventh, an interval with traditionally tragic connotations (the same combination of effects is also found in the last movement of Mozart’s C-minor concerto). One of the more remarkable features in Beethoven’s finale is the brief development of the main theme as a fugue, immediately followed by a typical Beethovenian jolt: he crosses the G-sharp/A-flat bridge again, this time in the opposite direction, revisiting the E-major tonality of the slow movement. After re-establishing the home key, Beethoven proceeds with the recapitulation, culminating in a short cadenza. The movement ends with a Presto coda, set apart by a change of meter (from 2/4 to 6/8) and another change of key (from C minor to C major), to resolve the dramatic tensions by a cheerful and carefree conclusion.