About this Recording
8.553269 - TCHAIKOVSKY / RACHMANINOV: Piano Concertos

Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky (1840 - 1893)
Piano Concerto No.1 in B Flat Minor, Op. 23

Sergey Rachmaninov (1873 - 1943)
Piano Concerto No.2 in C Minor, Op. 18

Tchaikovsky, arguably the most popular of all Russian composers, was born in 1840, the son of an inspector of mines. The relative happiness of his childhood was broken by the departure of his beloved governess, Fanny Durbach, and by the death of his mother, the latter event during his education at the School of Jurisprudence, in preparation for a career in government service. His exceptional musical abilities were fostered in childhood and adolescence by private lessons, leading, in 1862, to his resignation from the Ministry of Justice, and his entry into the newly established St Petersburg Conservatory of Music, under the direction of Anton Rubinstein. Three years later he joined the teaching staff of the Conservatory established in Moscow by Rubinstein's brother Nikolay.

Tchaikovsky was to spend twelve years in Moscow, years that brought growing success to him as a composer and encouragement and interference from the nationalist group of composers led by Balakirev. In fact, however foreign and Russian his music might have seemed ro critics like Eduard Hanslick in Vienna, Tchaikovsky represents something of a synthesis between the cruder attempts at creating a recognisably Russian kind of music and the smoother, technically accomplished work of the Conservatories, denigrated by their enemies as "German".

Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No.1 in B Flat Minor was written towards the end of 1874. The composer played it through to Nikolay Rubinstein 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. Nevertheless the work survived, with a successful first performance by Hans von Bülow in Boston in October, and subsequent revisions and performances in Moscow and St Petersburg. The concerto has continued to arouse popular enthusiasm and occasional critical disdain, the latter resulting largely from the work's very popularity, and the brood of lesser concertos that it has in part inspired. It uses some borrowed material with Ukrainian folk-songs providing the first subject of the first movement and the opening theme of the last, and the French Il faut s'amuser et rire providing a lighter element in the second.

The Russian composer and pianist Sergey Rachmaninov was born in 1873, the son of aristocratic parents. His father's improvidence, however, was to lead to a change in the fortunes of the family, when increasing debts led to the sale of one estate after another, followed by removal to an apartment in St. Petersburg. It was in that city that Rachmaninov, at the age of nine, entered the Conservatory on a scholarship.

The subsequent separation of his parents and failure in general subject examinations was to bring about Rachmaninov's move to the Moscow Conservatory, where he was under the strict supervision of Nikolay Zverev. In Moscow he was to win considerable success as time went on, both as a performer and as a composer, although it was the second of these roles that seemed likely to be the more important. The Communist Revolution of 1917 was to bring many changes. While some musicians remained in Russia, others chose temporary or permanent exile. Rachmaninov took the latter course, and found himself obliged to rely on his very considerable gifts as a pianist in order to support himself and his family. At the same time he was to continue working as a conductor. Composition inevitably had to take second or third place, and it was principally as a concert pianist, one of the greatest of his time, that he became known to audiences.

In 1897 Rachmaninov's first symphony had been performed in St Petersburg under the direction of Glazunov, who, according to his wife's later account, was drunk at the time. The work was badly played and received a hostile critical reception. César Cui, indeed, a surviving member of the Mightly Handful, the five leading Russian nationalist composers, described it as a student programme symphony of the Seven Plagues of Egypt, an unflattering judgement that contributed to the composer's depression and loss of confidence.

The C Minor Piano Concerto was written in 1900 and 1901 and is dedicated to Dr. Nikolay Dahl, under whom Rachmaninov had undergone a course of psychiatric treatment that restored his creative urge. The second and third movements of a work that was to prove to be one of the most popular romantic piano concertos, were completed in the summer of 1900 and the first movement in the following year. In November 1901 it was performed in Moscow under the direction of Rachmaninov's cousin, Alexander Ziloti, with the composer as soloist and was received with the greatest enthusiasm. The work has retained its position in the repertoire, although it has at the same time served as a model for regrettably vulgar imitations that have nothing of the innovative inspiration of the original.

The first movement of the concerto opens with eight dramatic chords from the piano, followed by the first theme from the strings, accompanied by piano arpeggios. The second subject, played by the soloist, is introduced by a phrase on the viola, rhapsodic style by the pianist in a development and in a recapitulation to which the soloist adds an initially martial element.

In the slow movement the orchestra moves gently from the key of C minor to the remote key of E major, in which the soloist enters with characteristic figuration. The principal theme is introduced by flute and clarinet, before being taken up by the soloist. The more rapid central section of the movement suggests the mood of a scherzo, leading to a powerful cadenza.

With scarcely a pause the orchestra introduces the final movement, a further cadenza leading to the first theme, with a second announced by the oboe and violas. Both are treated rhapsodically by the soloist, the second theme forming a romantic contrast to the more energetic rhythm of the first.

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