On Beethoven’s birthday, check out his most beautiful piece of music

On this occasion of Ludwig van Beethoven’s birthday, December 16, 1770, I’ve chosen to highlight and celebrate one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written: Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-Flat Major, the Adagio Un Poco Mosso movement. It is so perfect, its creation so beyond normal human comprehension, that I am—all hyperbole aside—inclined to ascribe to it divine status. If there were one piece of music in this world with the power to make me believe in a sort of deist, enlightenment-era God (a la Thomas Paine), it would be this concerto; and I am firmly an agnostic. It is, in word, sublime.

Beethoven’s Adagio Un Poco Mosso movement is the one piece of music outside of some Boards of Canada and Aphex Twin tracks that I can listen to on a continuous loop. I never tire of it. It’s made me weep. It’s made me feel the strange grandeur of this world we inhabit. It’s given me an awareness of how very special it is that I am here on Earth, suspended in orbit around the Sun, able to listen to Beethoven’s otherworldly genius, while the universe and all of its other worlds keep expanding and they will never hear it.

The piano concerto was written in Vienna between 1809 and 1811. Dedicated to Beethoven’s pupil and royal patron Archduke Rudolf, it eventually acquired the title “Emperor.” While its beauty is manifest in the crystalline piano notes, which range from melancholic to triumphant, the way the accompanying strings swell and disappear at intervals is a thing of unmatched musical genius. The concerto is something of a bridge between the classical and romantic forms of music. We even get about ten seconds of proto-jazz with Beethoven’s piano notes ascending and descending. Astounding.

There are a number of recordings of Beethoven’s piano concerto, all of them good in their own way. The best known recording is probably Vladimir Ashkenazy with the Chicago Symphony, but one of my favorite performances is with Leonard Bernstein conducting and Kyrstian Zimerman playing piano (the man absolutely rips the piano apart playing). The recording made by conductor George Szell with Leon Fleisher on piano is also great.

Below are the Ashkenazy and Zimerman versions (the latter in full). I couldn’t find a stream of the Fleisher performance. Also below is the concerto’s entire three movements as recorded by Maurizio Pollini on piano. The Adagio movement begins at about 20:55.