Top 50 Favorite/Best Classical – #25 Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 5 in Eb major, Op. 73

Time/Life had a series out in the 70s and 80s called “Great Men of Music.” I forget when and how I got several of the series, but sometime in the late 80s, I had the cassette version of their collection for Tchaikovsky, Berlioz, Chopin, Schumann, Dvorak, Liszt, Brahms, Bach, Prokofiev, Debussy, Bruckner, Verdi, and Beethoven. It was through this series that I first heard a lot of these composers’s amazing music. The recording of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 they had is still my favorite. It was done by Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra with Van Cliburn on the piano. There’s no video recording of that performance so, later, I’m going to share of a much younger, more recent generation. 

Beethoven composed his fifth and final piano concerto between 1809 and 1811 in Vienna, during his “heroic” period. It is a three movement concerto, typical for the era. The first movement is the longest, usually about 20 minutes in length. The reason for this is that the first movement is the most developed, done in sonata allegro form. In a concerto this becomes a much bigger exposition and is called a double exposition. Beethoven extends it further by having an introduction with flair. After the introduction, the orchestra plays the primary theme, here a lovely heroic theme. The orchestra then follows the traditional path of a sonata-exposition by migrating to the secondary theme on the dominant. In the concerto sonata form, the primary and secondary themes are then repeated by the soloist. If you have really lovely themes, this makes for fantastic music, and here is where Beethoven shines because all his themes in Piano Concerto No. 5 are absolutely lovely. 

After the double exposition ends, the development section is open for composer’s discretion and Beethoven has the piano and orchestra flying before retiring back to the recapitulation of the primary and secondary themes of the exposition. I particularly love the utterly magical spots left strictly for the piano where Beethoven has the pianist float gently aboard high soft eighth note arpeggios above a gentle walking bass in the left hand.  

The second movement is a lovely nocturne in B major, a minor sixth above the tonic key of Eb. This lovely melody was featured in the film Dead Poet’s Society in a key scene when Neal goes to visit Dr. Keating in his office to discuss how to reconcile his desires to do theater with his father’s desires to become a doctor. The mournful theme is fitting for the discussion they have. 

The final movement is a rondo in seven parts. It is a good ending to the piece, though for me it is the weakest part of the piece. It has a very military march feel to it, fitting in with the “heroic” era of Beethoven’s middle years. 

Again as with his Symphony No. 5, Beethoven is on the list simply on the strength of the first movement, which is an absolute masterpiece. There’s such a fine balance between the first and second themes that you don’t even feel like they are two different themes. The whole movement, the conversation between the piano and the orchestra is among the most engaging you will ever find. 

As for a good recording, this one is played often, so I’m sure you can find a good one. In fact Krystian Zimerman at the piano with Bernstein conducting the Vienna Philharmonic is pretty damn good. But I’m going to offer listening to the young ones. Here is Alina Bercu, a fellow Romanian, playing quite well with the Orchestra of the University of Music Franz Liszt in Weimar. Enjoy!

#25 – Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 5 in Eb major, Op. 73

#26 – Bernstein West Side Story

#27 – Enescu – Octet for Strings in C major, Op. 7

#28 – Shostakovich String Quartet No. 8 in C minor, Op. 110

#29 – Mussorgsky Night on Bald Mountain

#30 – Webber Phantom of the Opera

#31 – Prokofiev Alexander Nevsky

#32 – Chopin Nocturne in Bb minor, Op. 9, No. 1

#33 – Debussy Images, Book 1, L110

#34 – Debussy Pour Le Piano, L. 95

#35 – Chaminade Guitare, Op. 32

#36 – Chopin Berceuse in Db major, Op. 57

#37 – Boulanger Nocturne pour violon et piano

#38 – Schönberg Les Miserables

#39 – Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18

#40 – Miranda Hamilton

#41 – Strauss Salomé

#42 – Britten Peter Grimes

#43 – Loewe My Fair Lady

#44 – Liszt Mephisto Waltzes

#45 – Webber Evita

#46 – Poledouris Conan The Barbarian

#47 – Bernstein Trouble in Tahiti

#48 – Beethoven Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67

#49 – Chaminade La Lisonjera, Op. 50

#50 – Beethoven Coriolan Overture, Op. 62

Honorable Mention

Schubert – Symphony No. 8 in B minor, D759

Gade – Octet for 4 violins, 2 violas, 2 violoncellos in F major, Op. 17

Grisey Les espaces acoustiques

Schoenberg Verklärte Nacht

Verdi Aïda

Williams Raiders of the Lost Ark

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