Beethoven's Fourth Fortepiano Concerto Revisited: A Response to Hans-Werner Küthen

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IN THE SUMMER 1998 ISSUE OF THE BEETHOVEN JOURNAL, Hans-Werner Kiithen gave an account of his discovery of a string quintet arrangement of the orchestral parts of Beethoven's Fourth Fortepiano Concerto, Opus 58, that had been authorized by Beethoven himself.1 This arrangement was evidently prepared by Franz Alexander Possinger, who worked from a copyist's manuscript score of the concerto which Beethoven owned and which still survives in Vienna.2 Kuthen's ingenious observations and deductions about the arrangement, and his discovery in Berlin of a copy of what appears to be Pössinger's version, are very thoroughly researched and seem wholly admirable. However, his article also discusses some annotations by Beethoven in the Vienna score, which take the form of sketchy elaborations to the solo part, and he concludes that these were made in order to create a new fortepiano part for the "chamber music version." This conclusion is far less convincing, being based on no firm evidence, and it can be rejected with some confidence. Previous scholars, including myself, believed these annotations to have been made for the first public performance of the concerto in December 1808,3 and this still seems their most probable origin.

Although Küthen repeatedly refers to the combination of Pössinger's quintet arrangement of the orchestral parts and Beethoven's elaboration of the solo part as "the chamber music version," he consistently fails to demonstrate any direct link between the arrangement and the elaboration. There is indeed no reason to suppose they are connected, and any such connection would seem unlikely in view of what is known about arrangements of the period in general. Arrangements of orchestral works for reduced forces were very common in the early nineteenth century. Küthen cites as a parallel example "Beethoven's own arrangement of the second Symphony for fortepiano trio (published in 1805)," although he should have noted that this was not in fact Beethoven's own arrangement but one almost certainly prepared by someone else, possibly under Beethoven's supervision, as has recently become clear.4 In this and all other cases known to me, the arrangement was either a more or less direct transcription with as little altered as possible, or it was a somewhat simplified version - as in some fortepiano arrangements, where the complexities of the orchestral texture are drastically reduced. Küthen cites no example of a chamber music version that is more elaborate than an orchestral version to match the one he postulates for the concerto in question. Moreover, publicly performed concertos had by this date become a genre for display, where the composer-performer's most elaborate and difficult passagework would be written, whereas chamber music was by its very nature more intimate and less prone to virtuosity. Even in works such as the "Kreutzer" Sonata, which Beethoven described as "very concertante," there is less emphasis on virtuosity than in an actual concerto. Thus to suggest that a chamber music version of a concerto had a more elaborate fortepiano part than its full orchestral version seems to fly in the face of reason and tradition, and would need some very convincing evidence in support. No such evidence exists.

Another problem with Kuthen's hypothesis is that he claims Pössinger used Beethoven's annotations to write out the more elaborate fortepiano part that Beethoven supposedly intended for the chamber music version. Yet Pössinger could not possibly have done this. The annotations are extremely hard to decipher, and in some cases not even fully notated. Even Beethoven's best copyist, Wenzel Schlemmer, who had become familiar with his idiosyncratic scrawl, would have had difficulty deciphering some of them, and Pössinger would have fared far worse. His skill lay as an arranger, not as an expert in Beethoven's handwriting. Indeed nobody before Gustav Nottebohm, the first person to study Beethoven's sketches in detail, would have been able to transcribe them; and even Nottebohm implied that some were not legible, while Paul Badura-Skoda, working in the 1950s, described several of them as "illegible," "almost illegible" or "scarcely decipherable. …