1809-11: Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5 (EMPEROR) in Eb major, age 38

Claudio Arrau/Sir Collin Davis, Staatskapelle Dresden (1984): In only one file

This may disappear at any moment, and at the end of the last movement there is something like 40 minutes of nothing, Mistake? Or trying to avoid copyright? Regardless, there are not breaks, and that’s really important because the 2nd movement goes right into the last, with no break. And it’s great to not have to keep clicking for movements.

  1. Allegro, Eb major 20:58
  2. Adagio un poco mosso, B major 8:27
  3. Rondo – Allegro ma non troppo, Eb major: 11:08

Claudio Arrau/Sir Collin Davis, Staatskapelle Dresden (1984): Three files

This is the same recording, but broken up.

  1. Allegro, Eb major 20:58
  2. Adagio un poco mosso, B major 8:27
  3. Rondo – Allegro ma non troppo, Eb major: 11:08

Total time:40:41

Zimerman, Wiener Philharmoniker, Bernstein (1989)

  1. Allegro, Eb major: 20:53
  2. Adagio un poco mosso, B major 9:14
  3. Rondo – Allegro ma non troppo, Eb major: 10:36

Total time:40:41

Horowitz, Reiner, CSO (1952)

  1. Allegro, Eb major 19:00
  2. Adagio un poco mosso, B major 8:09
  3. Rondo – Allegro ma non troppo, Eb major: 10:11

Total time:37:25

Vladimir Ashkenazy/Bernard Haitink, London Philharmonic Orchestra (1974), live

This would not even make it into my top 10 recordings for sound, but the performance is Ashkenazy at the top of his game, when he was still quite young. No one ever played better live than this man, and I know because I heard him play two Beethoven concertos live, in Miami.

Go HERE to see a pianist red-lining. That’s right on the edge of being so emotional that it gets out of control, so an absolutely wonderful moment that only happens live.

Vladimir Ashkenazy/Georg Solti, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, studio, 1975

This goes to the top of the list, because again this is Ashkenazy at the top of his game, and Solti with the CSO is electrifying.


  • solo piano
  • 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets in Bb (clarinet I in A in movement 2), 2  bassoons
  • 2 horns, 2 trumpets
  • timpani
  • strings

Lots of instruments, but no trombones.

1st Movement:

By itself this piano writing would not please me because there are so many arpeggios and scales, but in combination with the orchestral writing it is wonderful. There are many places with 2 against 3. The massive chords towards the end of the development are titanic. In fact, the whole movement is. The 1st movement is around 20 minutes long, extremely for that time period.

2nd Movement:

The first question: how did he get to B major? It’s a double morph, and someday I’m going to take a deep dive and find out just who was the first to change keys this way, but it’s striking. Then the whole rest of the movement is just magic. There is no real break at the end, so just where this movement ends and the next one starts is up for debate. But he slides from B, one single note, to Bb, also just one note. Then he uses that to move to Eb, very slowly, so V to I in the key of Eb major.

3rd Movement:

This is actually a waltz, and one of the most famous waltz movements in history. Again there a lot of scales and arpeggios, but the almost technical feel at times is perfectly balanced against absolutely superb orchestral writing, and only Beethoven could have pulled this off.

The last and possibly the best…

The Piano Concerto No. 5 in E♭ major, Op. 73, by Ludwig van Beethoven,
popularly known as the Emperor Concerto, was the last of his five piano concertos, and by this time Beethoven’s hearing had declined terribly.

The name “Emperor” was not Beethoven’s…

The name was coined  by Johann Baptist Cramer, the English publisher of the concerto. Beethoven reportedly regarded him as the greatest pianist of that time. There is a famous tune from BROADWAY called “You’ve Gotta Have a Gimmick”, and in Beethoven’s time, as in ours, someone somewhere was always doing something to hype “the last hot thing”.

First performance…

It was first performed publicly on November 28th, 1811, in the Gewandhaus concert hall in Leipzig, Germany. Beethoven by this time was so deaf that he did not dare play it himself in public and left it to Friedrich Schneider, a pianist who was also a 25 year old church organist. Johann Philipp Christian Schulz was the  conductor.

Beethoven never played this in public…

In fact, this is the only concerto that Beethoven did not play in public, although he probably played it in private at the Archduke’s residence. Without any doubt he allowed someone else to play it because his hearing had declined so far.

Performance vehicle for composer-pianists…

During the classical period, the concerto for piano existed almost solely as a virtuoso display piece for composer-pianists. Others have said that this only changed later in Beethoven’s life, but I would say there was always a change. Even the earliest concertos were bolder and gave more power to the orchestra, so for me there was a continuous evolution.

Game changer?

Many people label Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 the first of the great 19th-century Romantic concertos. In my mind this is arbitrary and incomplete. The last three concertos all break ground, are all Romantic in the largest sense of the word, and present different facets of romanticism.

The most popular of the concertos…

The 5th Concerto remains the best known and most frequently performed of Beethoven’s five piano concertos, perhaps because of the massiveness of the piano writing.

Carl Czerny

In February 1812, three months after its premiere, the concerto was given its first performance in Vienna. The pianist on that occasion was Beethoven’s student Carl Czerny, a performer still renowned today in keyboard circles for his own piano compositions. No one talks much today about Czerny’s piano music except for his piano exercises, but at that time he was quite famous.


Not only did this 5th concerto become immediately popular, it became a great favorite of Franz Liszt. How well did Liszt know the music of Beethoven? The answer: intimately enough to write solo piano transcriptions of all Beethoven’s symphonies, some of the most amazing transcriptions ever written. Once again we see how the great composers revered and supported each other.

Improved piano sound…

The success of the Emperor Concerto was due in part to technological developments in piano production that enabled a greater measure of expressive power. Beethoven throughout his life was constantly pleading for bigger, stronger pianos, and it’s my personal belief that he would have loved the modern concert grand. Ironically the piano was just starting to evolve towards the kind of instrument was play at precisely the time Beethoven started to lose his hearing, and of course eventually went stone deaf.

The style and wide dynamic range is perfectly suited to the modern concert grand, something Beethoven could only have dreamed of, and until the mid 1820s the world did not hear even the beginning of the development of such an instrument. So even at the time of the first performances, there was nothing like the huge sound we hear today, but by the time of Liszt it was very different.

Planned out cadenza…

At the end of the first movement, the traditional cadenza is written out instead of improvised. Beethoven wrote:

“Do not play a cadenza, but begin immediately what follows”

What the really means is: Don’t make up your own. Use mine.

The delay in performance…

The Piano Concerto No. 5 was begun in 1809 during one of the most productive periods in Beethoven’s life. By the end of 1809, when Beethoven was 39, the concerto was complete, but the war meant that there was no premiere for another couple of years. Since his deafness progressed so fast, most likely he still heard much better at the time he finished it than at the time of the public performances.

Beethoven words about that period:

“[The course of events] has affected me body and soul…with nothing by drums, cannons, men, misery of all sorts.”

He even had to leave his brother’s home and take refuge in the basement to escape explosions and cannon attacks.

Archduke Rudolph (1788-1831):

Beethoven dedicated the concerto to his patron, Archduke Rudolph, and the story about the friendship between these two men is both complicated and fascinating. The archduke was 18 years younger, an epileptic and a very sickly man who only lived to the age 43, barely outliving Beethoven. This friendship shows that the complete division of the classes started to break down during Beethoven’s lifetime. You can imagine that Beethoven was no easy man to get along with, yet this young man, the youngest brother of Emperor Leapold II, was Beethoven’s only composition student. He was a find composer himself and worked for many years to make sure Beethoven got enough money and was not tempted to leave Vienna.

3 thoughts on “1809-11: Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5 (EMPEROR) in Eb major, age 38

  1. Bernstein doesn’t hold back. Zimerman is magnificent, as usual. He was in his 30’s when this was recorded. Now in his 60’s, he will play this concerto in Dresden, Germany this July.

  2. I am pondering something here. My parents must have played this recording a lot when I was young. My memory from that time is almost totally of the orchestra, and the piano just sort of blended into it for me. Now as a piano student my ear is for the piano ofc. It’s a concerto, featuring the main instrument. I’m wondering, is this seamless blending of solo instrument and orchestra actually a special strength of the piece, and Beethoven?

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