Carving Mount Rushmore might be an easier task than performing everything Ludwig van Beethoven composed for the keyboard.
The five piano concertos, 32 sonatas, the Diabelli Variations and numerous other works require a Herculean effort, if not a lifetime of focus. John O’Conor would know. The celebrated Irish pianist — who with his wife Mary spends winters at their condo in Belleair Beach — has recorded all of the above and continues to explore and reinterpret Beethoven in live performances around the world.
His next stop: Friday through Sunday in Tampa, St. Petersburg and Clearwater as soloist with The Florida Orchestra in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3. Guest conductor Marcelo Lehninger rounds out the all-Beethoven program with the potent “Egmont” Overture and the bucolic Symphony No. 6, the so-called “Pastorale.’’
In the Third Piano Concerto, Beethoven begins to experiment with new forms, colors, and key relationships, which together create a work of profound emotional depth. His choice of C minor would later be known as his “heroic’’ key. Scholars note the influence of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24, also in C minor, in shaping not only the Third Concerto but a number of other masterpieces of the same tonal shade.
“What is sure is that the key of C minor was already a strong influence on him and brought out some of his most powerful compositions,’’ O’Conor says, mentioning the shared key of the “Pathetique,’’ the final piano sonata, the String Quartet No. 4, and the famed Fifth Symphony. Like these works, the concerto rides on a tide of high drama.
“In the Third Concerto this power is evident from the first entry of the piano, with its thunderous scales,’’ O’Conor says. “After such a powerful first movement, there’s a startling change in the very opening of the second movement. The opening chord of E major has little relation to C minor, (but it) transports us to a totally different world.’’
The “world’’ of the middle movement is sublime Beethoven. Set at a slow (largo) tempo, the music moves us to an ethereal realm, one far removed from the explosive tensions that just passed. Many believe that Beethoven tips his hat to Mozart in this poignant inner movement, which unfolds like delicate chamber music.
“And the soft scales in the piano before the end of the movement provide moments of pure magic in this extraordinary composition,’’ O’Conor says.
Progressive in its sound and structure, the concerto served as a model for composers throughout the 19th century. Here was music that dove deeper than ever before, and created an almost experimental form of expression. Maynard Solomon, in his acclaimed 1977 biography, “Beethoven,’’ says the composer abandoned exterior wit and refinement in his search for dramatic oratory. In essence, the concerto touched on the romantic ideal in music: a longing for the infinite.
It also became a testimonial for Beethoven’s character and perseverance. For about this time ─ roughly 1800 ─ the 30-year-old composer realized he was slowly losing the one gift he treasured above all: his hearing.
“The concerto is one of the most important of all Beethoven’s compositions,’’ O’Conor says. “His use of the orchestra is more symphonic than before; the richness of ideas is a harbinger of things to come. And all of this was developing in his mind at the same time he was coming to terms with the problem of his hearing. He was going to have to live with the awfulness of life as a musician who wouldn’t be able to hear his music — except in his own head.’’