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6.110051 - TCHAIKOVSKY: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 3
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Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)

Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)

Piano Concerto No. 1, Op. 23 • Piano Concerto No. 3, Op. 75

 

Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky retains his position as the most popular of all Russian composers. His music offers obvious superficial charms in its winning melodies and vivid orchestral colours. At the same time his achievement is deeper than this, however tempting it may be to despise what so many people continue to enjoy.

 

Born in Kamsko-Votkinsk in 1840, the second son of a mining engineer, Tchaikovsky had his early education, in music as in everything else, at home, under the care of his mother and of a beloved governess. From the age of ten he was a pupil at the School of Jurisprudence in St Petersburg, completing his studies there in 1859, to take employment in the Ministry of Justice. During these years he developed his abilities as a musician and it must have seemed probable that, like his near contemporaries Mussorgsky, Cui, Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin, he would keep music as a secondary occupation, while following his official career.

 

For Tchaikovsky matters turned out differently. The foundation of the new Conservatory of Music in St Petersburg under Anton Rubinstein enabled him to study there as a full-time student from 1863. In 1865 he moved to Moscow as a member of the staff of the new Conservatory established there by Anton Rubinstein’s brother Nikolay. For over ten years he continued in Moscow, before financial assistance from a rich widow, Nadezhda von Meck, enabled him to leave the Conservatory and devote himself entirely to composition. The same period in his life brought an unfortunate marriage to a self-proclaimed admirer of his work, a woman who showed early signs of mental instability and could only add further to Tchaikovsky’s own problems of character and inclination. His homosexuality was a torment to him, while his morbid sensitivity and diffidence, coupled with physical revulsion for the woman he had married, led to a severe nervous breakdown.

 

Separation from his wife, which was immediate, still left practical and personal problems to be solved. Tchaikovsky’s relationship with Nadezhda von Meck, however, provided not only the money that at first was necessary for his career, but also the understanding and support of a woman who, so far from making physical demands of him, never even met him face to face. This curiously remote liaison and patronage only came to an end in 1890, when, on the false plea of bankruptcy, she discontinued an allowance that was no longer of importance and a correspondence on which he had come to depend.

 

Tchaikovsky’s sudden death in St Petersburg in 1893 gave rise to contemporary speculation and has provoked further posthumous rumours. It has been suggested that he committed suicide as the result of pressure from a court of honour of former students of the School of Jurisprudence, when an allegedly erotic liaison with a young nobleman seemed likely to cause an open scandal even in court circles. Officially his death was attributed to cholera, contracted after drinking undistilled water, and there are detailed reports on the progress of the illness, however caused. Whether the victim of cholera, of his own carelessness or reckless despair, or of death deliberately courted, Tchaikovsky was widely mourned.

 

Tchaikovsky wrote his Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor towards the end of 1874 and played it through to Nikolay Rubinstein, director of the Moscow Conservatory, on Christmas Eve, 5th January 1875 in Western dating, seeking advice on the lay-out of the solo part. Rubinstein’s response was one of utter and devastating condemnation. The concerto was worthless and unplayable, with trite and awkward passages, bad, tawdry and borrowed. Tchaikovsky, diffident at the best of times, was appalled by this reaction, which he took personally, later attributing it to Rubinstein’s petty tyranny. Nevertheless the work survived, with a successful first performance by Hans von Bülow in Boston in October, followed by a performance in St Petersburg and a more successful performance in Moscow under Nikolay Rubinstein, with the composer’s young pupil Sergey Taneyev as the soloist. Rubinstein later took the work into his own conert piano repertoire. Its immediate reception was mixed. The concerto has gone on, however, to arouse popular enthusiasm, and, in consequence, occasional critical disdain, the latter stemming largely from the wide popularity of the work and, not least, from the brood of lesser concertos that it has in part inspired. Tchaikovsky contemplated dedicating the concerto to Taneyev, but eventually decided to show his gratitude with a dedication to Hans von Bülow. Various revisions were made before publication in 1879 and again before a further publication of the work in 1889 in which the familiar opening piano chords were differently arranged over a wider range of the keyboard and without arpeggiation.

 

The first movement starts with an opening section in the relative major key of D flat and originally marked Andante non troppo e molto maestoso, with the first word later modified to Allegro. This very memorable introduction is followed by the exposition, marked Allegro con spirito. Here the first subject, derived from a Ukrainian folk-song, leads to a more lyrical second subject, introduced by the orchestra and taken up by the soloist, before the orchestra moves to the second part of the subject. This material provides the substance of the central development and the recapitulation, which includes a written cadenza. The slow movement has a gently lilting first theme, introduced by the flute, and includes, at its centre, a scherzo-like Prestissimo, based on a French tune, Il faut s’amuser et rire. The finale starts with a theme based on a Ukrainian folk-song and a secondary element, both of which are fully exploited in a conclusion of great brilliance.

 

Late in 1891 Tchaikovsky began to sketch a new symphony, completing it in outline, only to reject the work. In June 1893 he was in London, where he met again the pianist Louis Dièmer and conducted a performance of his Fourth Symphony. He travelled on to Cambridge, where he was awarded a doctorate at a ceremony in which Saint-Saëns and Bruch received the same honour, returning briefly to London and thence to Paris. From there he made his way back, through Switzerland and Austria, to Russia, first to the Konradi family estate at Grankino, where he worked on the first movement of the new concerto, before returning finally to his house at Klin. His decision to use his discarded symphony as the basis of a piano concerto was suggested by his renewal of acquaintance with Louis Dièmer, for whom the work was intended. He completed the first movement in July, and then resolved to leave it as a single-movement concert piece, and Allegro de concert. He had for some time relied on the judgement of Taneyev, who found the piano part lacking in virtuosity. Nevertheless Tchaikovsky apparently continued with the project, using the slow movement and finale of the symphony as possible sketches for a second and third movement, the Andante and Finale, Op. 79, revised and scored by Taneyev after the composer’s death, and published in 1897.

 

The first subject of the planned concerto is heard from the bassoon, followed at once by the soloist, who is later entrusted with the statement of the opening of the second subject group, in G major. The central development is followed by a cadenza based on the second subject, before the final recapitulation. The orchestra introduces the B flat major slow movement, leading to the chordal entry of the soloist with material that is later elaborated. The work ends with a forthright finale, for which, as for the Andante, Taneyev made additions to provide greater opportunity for virtuoso display.

 

Keith Anderson


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