HERE IS A SERIES OF CONCERTS NOT TO BE MISSED! The first Beethoven Piano Concerto cycle to be performed by a Singaporean. Only the fourth such cycle to take place in Singapore (the previous ones were in 1983, 1998 and 2004, given by Anton Kuerti, various pianists and Mikhail Pletnev respectively, all with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra), this one is special because it features local piano titan LIM YAN and The Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Lim YauPianomania is privileged to have a few words from pianist LIM YAN, who obviously relishes his forthcoming experience with Beethoven.

Congratulations! You will be the first Singaporean pianist to perform all of Beethoven’s five piano concertos in a cycle here, and even beating Melvyn Tan to it. When was this not-so-crazy idea with The Philharmonic Orchestra first mooted?

The Philharmonic Orchestra had previously presented complete cycles of symphonies by Beethoven, Schumann, Schubert and Sibelius, and it is an intriguing idea to explore the entire output of one composer in a particular genre; to immerse oneself in the musical language of a particular composer and to study his works intensely. It’s music director Lim Yau and I had been discussing the possibility of a Beethoven piano concerto cycle for some time now – years, I think – so when this opportunity arose we went ahead and plunged right in!

Surely you must have performed one or two of these concertos in the past. What do Beethoven’s piano concertos mean to you?

Each of Beethoven’s five piano concertos is an important work of the repertory, and that is a remarkable testament to his genius and his perfectionist streak. Off-hand, the only other composer I can think of with a comparable record in the genre is Rachmaninov. As a piano virtuoso himself, Beethoven’s writing for the instrument is not only idiomatic but also revolutionary – for example, the characteristic long pedal markings for effect.

The three ages of Beethoven.

We see Beethoven’s style evolve with these concertos, from the Haydn-Mozart model of Op.19 (the Second Concerto but chronologically the first), through the Middle Period concertos of Op.37 and 58 (Third and Fourth Concertos) to his maturity in Op.73 (the Fifth or “Emperor” Concerto). How differently do you approach each of these works?

Undoubtedly, Beethoven was an innovative composer who was constantly pushing at the edge of the envelope – for example, up to the Third Concertowe have a standard concerto structure with double exposition, et cetera. Suddenly, in the Fourth Concerto it is the piano which opens with a quiet four-bar phrase. And the Fifth Concerto practically begins with a written-out cadenza punctuated by three orchestral chords. It is as if Beethoven was showing us that there are alternatives; that a concerto does not have to start in a certain fixed way. I am quite sure that Liszt was strongly influenced by the opening of the Fifth for his own First Piano Concerto, as well as Grieg and Schumann, to name just three other composers.

Let us also not forget that the piano was undergoing some changes during this time as well. The keyboard expanded from five octaves to almost seven octaves and with it also the range of expressive possibilities. In the first two concertos in particular, the music often traverses the entire range of the keyboard or hovers around the extremes. One can imagine Beethoven sometimes wishing for an extra note or two!

The opening bars of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No.4 in G major, Op.58.

Which of these concertos did you find the most challenging to learn and interpret?

I’m afraid I am going to have to go with the clich├ęd answer which is the Fourth Concerto. I think there is a good reason why this concerto is often singled out. It is for me the least concerto-like of the five. The typical dynamic and drama of a concerto involves pitting the soloist against the orchestra – the struggle of one against many – but the texture in the Fourth Concerto more often resembles that of a symphony with piano obbligato. Even though there are very many notes, the piano frequently has a subservient role in the context of the whole. Add to that a seemingly calm and sedate, lyrical main theme (highly unusual for Beethoven!), and it is almost as if Beethoven is challenging one’s preconceived notions of a concerto; to re-evaluate and re-think what is understood by the term “concerto”.

Do you have a particular favourite? And why?

Growing up, the Great Composers series of recordings was an important part of my musical education as that was how I first got to know many of the pieces in that collection. I still remember vividly the first issue, which featured Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and being totally captivated by this music which I had never heard before.
Later on in the series, the Emperor Concerto was featured, with its equally arresting opening, and I was hooked. I even managed to obtain a score and tried to pick my way through the easier bits, with limited success. I could only boggle at passages like the double thirds in the first movement.

Now, over two decades later, I still love the Emperor, and I still struggle to play double thirds…!

Do you have any favourite recordings of the concertos?

One musician whom I admire greatly for his interpretation of Beethoven’s music is Daniel Barenboim – not just as a pianist but also as a conductor. To me, he gets right to the heart of the music, without any showboating, cheap effects or eccentricities – just pure music. I recently discovered the recording he made in 2007 with the Staatskapelle Berlin, conducting all five concertos from the piano, and was completely blown away by its conviction. The orchestra was also on top form and so sensitive to everything that Barenboim did. 

You recently performed the “Emperor”with the Vietnam National Symphony Orchestra in Hanoi (conducted by Adrian Tan). What was the experience and reception there like?

I thoroughly enjoyed the experience with VNSO in Hanoialthough the weather was unbearably warm! Temperatures went up as high as 40°C sometimes and rehearsals became quite uncomfortable, especially in poorly-ventilated spaces. We even cancelled one session of rehearsals because of the heat wave! Thankfully we managed to get through the performances – Adrian and I were both drenched in perspiration by the end – which were on the whole well-received.

I must also mention, as an integral part of the Vietnamexperience, the food which was absolutely delicious. The flavours of the fresh produce are really highlighted and enhanced by the light cooking and condiments. I’m getting hungry just thinking about it!

We notice that Beethoven’s Triple Concerto (Op.56) has been included in this cycle, which means you play six concertos instead of just five! It has been described as a “Piano Trio” Concerto, so what is the piano part like, as opposed to the violin and cello parts?

Certainly, the Triple Concerto features quite an unusual instrumentation and it is interesting to see how Beethoven tackles the relationship, not just of soloists versus orchestra, but also strings versus piano. Although all three instruments have their moments in the spotlight, I think the piano rightly plays a more supportive role here to the more lyrical and expressive strings. The cello part in particular is especially prominent. It introduces the main subjects in each of the three movements, and is also technically demanding. The cello is so high up in its register that half the time the music almost sounds like a concerto for two violins and piano!

Since while you’re at it, why not also learn the D major Concerto (Op.61), Beethoven’s own transcription for piano of the Violin Concerto?

Yes indeed! Perhaps for the next cycle, together with the Piano Concerto No.0 (in E flat major, WoO 4)!

We wish you all the best!

The Beethoven Piano Concerto Cycle with Lim Yan and The Philharmonic Orchestra (conducted by Lim Yau) takes place at the School of the Arts (SOTA) Concert Hall at 8 pm on:

8 June (Friday): Nos.1 and 5 “Emperor”
13 June (Wednesday): Nos.3 and 4
16 June (Saturday): No.2 and Triple Concerto (with Grace Lee, Violin and Lin Juan, Cello)