Pierre-Laurent Aimard played the “Emperor Concerto” with the Concertgebouw at the Kennedy Center last week. (Marco Borggreve)
Classical music critic

So, you want to get to know a piece of classical music better. Let’s say you pick Beethoven’s fifth piano concerto, called the Emperor Concerto. You’ve heard that it’s one of the biggest and best in the standard repertory. You want to get ready for the Beethoven 250th anniversary year in 2020, and you also see that it’s done a lot — twice at the Kennedy Center in two weeks this month, and another with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra scheduled for May. Where do you go from there?

Conventional wisdom might lead you to the text in the concert program, which will provide a few details about the history of the piece, along with some of its musical features. “The year 1809 was a prolific one for Beethoven,” it might begin. It might mention Beethoven’s growing deafness — this was the only one of his five piano concertos he didn’t play himself at its premiere, because he couldn’t. And it might tell you that the concerto’s nickname, “Emperor,” was assigned not by the staunchly republican Beethoven, but by his publisher. According to one, perhaps apocryphal, story, this was because of the cries of “Emperor!” with which the first-night crowd greeted this masterpiece.

But ask a conductor about the concerto, and you’ll probably learn something quite different.

“The rhythmic life of the first movement is super-square,” says James Ross, music director of the Alexandria Symphony and erstwhile head of the conducting program at the University of Maryland. “For me, the first movement goes on longer than the material warrants.”

As for the second movement, the striking thing for Ross is the key signature: It’s in B major, which, he says, “orchestras just hardly ever do.” He assumes the persona of the orchestra: “We’re in B major, why move anywhere? Let’s just live on this exotic island and watch the waves roll onto our beaches for a few decades.”

Which perspective makes you want to hear the piece more?

There’s a big gap between the way classical music is introduced to lay listeners and the way musicians experience it. We tend to offer classical music to audiences like a history lesson, in explanations studded with names and dates that are useful enough as context but that don’t really get to the heart of what you hear. Musicians, however, experience it differently. So I went in search of a new view of the Emperor Concerto by talking to some of the artists who have played it recently, and although I’ve heard it dozens of times, I learned more than I ever dreamed I was missing. And there’s no one “right” way to approach it.

For Lachezar Kostov, the associate principal cellist of the Baltimore Symphony, “Beethoven was the biggest revolutionary when it came to orchestral cello writing.” Rather than relegating the lower instruments to mere bass-line accompaniment, the composer gave a lot of thematic material to cellos and violas, Kostov says. “It gave completely different possibilities for orchestral color.”

Daniel Foster, principal violist of the National Symphony Orchestra, says there’s no Beethoven piece that he doesn’t look forward to playing. But, Foster observes, “oftentimes his stuff doesn’t lie particularly well instrumentally, in the way that Mozart always seems to lie fantastically, idiomatically.” With Beethoven, he adds, “there can be awkward jumps, or it’s harder to find a fingering that really works.”

A horn player, by contrast, is in clover.

‘The horn parts in the Emperor get more bang for their buck, with less nervous tension, than nearly any other piece of Beethoven’s,” says Ross, who began his career as a horn player and the first American in Leipzig’s Gewandhaus orchestra. “E-flat is always a horn player’s homiest key.” And in this piece, he says, “everything we play sounds good.”

For Jauvon Gilliam, the NSO’s principal timpanist, one of the challenges is the timpani cadenza, with the piano soloist, that closes out the final movement. Gilliam is no stranger to the part; this season, he’s already played it with three orchestras. “Every soloist wants it different,” he says.

Gilliam’s favorite part of the piece comes at the end of the second movement, when the whole orchestra suddenly shifts down a half-step, from the unusual B major to B-flat, before rocketing off into the final movement.

“There’s not even a chord to transition,” he says. “It just sort of drops. In [Beethoven’s] time, that was brand-new. It’s one of those moments where you know it’s coming, you take a deep breath, close your eyes, and let it sink in, each night.” Gilliam can do that, because in the second movement, he doesn’t have to play.

For orchestra players, a concerto, even one as long and demanding as the Emperor, can represent a bit of a reprieve. “It’s not as intense an experience as doing one of the symphonies,” says Foster, the violist. The focus is on the soloist, who has to deliver some 40 minutes of high-wire playing, at the upper and lower extremes of the instrument, with all ears upon him.

“You think, ‘Oh, gosh, I might not be able to make it,” says pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, who played the piece with the Concertgebouw at the Kennedy Center last week. Aimard is well known for contemporary music and has played some of the thorniest works by Boulez, Stockhausen and Ligeti. But of the fifth concerto, he says, “every time it’s an impressive challenge. Not only because it’s so long, but because the form is so strong, and every gesture, every moment should be so fully nourished somewhere. You think, ‘I hope this time it will work.’ ”

Audiences may focus more on melodic lines; musicians focus on key signatures — that odd B major in the second movement — and structure. For Gianandrea Noseda, music director of the NSO, this big, generous piece shows that “even in a very orthodox way of composing, Beethoven couldn’t be orthodox.”

Noseda points to the unusual opening, in which the orchestra strikes three basic chords — “any student of composition can do that” — followed by three piano cadenzas, moments of free-flowing, exposed playing from the soloist. Only then does the orchestra come in with the main theme. “You are already one minute and a half into the concerto,” Noseda says, “and you start the concerto from scratch.”

“It creates twice a surprise,” Aimard says. “You have three piano cadenzas at the start, and then when the piano is supposed to come in” after the orchestra’s opening theme, “instead of coming in in a glorious way, the piano comes in in a discreet way and sings the main theme in a very intimate way, so it’s a second surprise.”

“Then,” he continues, “at the end of the piece, you get another cadenza, but it’s a timpani cadenza with piano accompaniment” — a quiet moment, furthermore, when you might expect bombast. “The whole thing is upside down.”

Every work of orchestral music is a mosaic of myriad considerations, thoughts, phrasings and experiences in performance. This concerto used to be perceived as monumental (listen to the George Szell recording with Leon Fleisher from 1961), but today, as Kostov points out, it’s the style of many conductors to lead Classical-era pieces — the music of Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven — “much lighter and much happier, so it’s not as intense.” (Noseda has demonstrated this approach with the NSO.) Yet Aimard ultimately sees the piece in light of its own history, written at a time when Napoleon’s forces were besieging Vienna.

“It is anything but monumental, anything but beautiful and aesthetic,” he says. “It is a shout for freedom.”

“When it comes to musicians,” Kostov says, “the performance is just 1 percent of what happens underneath.”