About this Recording
8.571280 - TCHAIKOVSKY, P.I.: Concert Fantasia / Piano Concerto No. 2 (Biret Concerto Edition, Vol. 5)

Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893)
Concert Fantasy in G major, Op. 56 • Piano Concerto No. 2 in G major, Op. 44
(original version)


To Modest Tchaikovsky, Maidanovo, 25 February 1885: ‘I have just returned from Moscow where I spent four, not very nice, days. Was present at two committee meetings of the Musical Society as a director. Heard my Fantasia beautifully played by Taneyev and orchestra and am very pleased with it. It had more success than the Suite (No. 3).’

Composed in 1884 and first performed the following year, Tchaikovsky’s composition student Taneyev did the honours. Since then, the complete neglect of the Concert Fantasy has divided opinions between a lack of consistently strong ideas countered by an originality of structure that throws into relief some charming, lighter textured themes that demand a greater number of hearings. There are two sections: the first Quasi Rondo perhaps referring to a similarity between the opening and closing sections, the second: Contrastes, relevant to the orchestral Suites—particularly No. 3’s original slow movement—Finale layout—and their ‘new sounding’ orchestrations.

Compared to the Piano Concerto No. 1 an enlarged orchestra of three flutes with a percussion section backing the string choirs adds additional bright colours to the timbre of the work’s delightful opening measures, the solo pianist providing an embroidery of ideas with flutes (then solo clarinet) and punctuated strings giving an almost balletic nuance to the martial lightheartedness which quickly takes on a bolder stream of colours and gossamer decorations in an extended cadenza from the solo pianiSt Compared with the composer’s first movement cadenza in his Piano Concerto No. 2, there is more fluidity in evidence which provides the perfect lead back to the return of the opening orchestral subject. A new key of G minor, a cello theme, then strings matched with winds followed by oboe interplay with solo piano: a contrasting cheeky dance connects up then virtually takes charge. This provides the opening formula for Contrastes. A second string of events starts up with minor key French horns. Wind instrumentalists underlay the frolicsome pianist—who is intent on interrupting the course of events with highly accented dance figurations.

To Anatoli Tchaikovsky, Kamenka, 17 October 1879: ‘I have started writing a piano concerto in a leisurely way before lunch, but composition is something of an effort. I do not feel any great desire to write but experience on the other hand has shown that I cannot live without work’.

The evidence informs us that where the First Concerto’s piano part is orchestrally conceived, his Second has such a preponderance of keyboard writing that in its original form (even allowing for Tchaikovsky’s own cuts) the repetitions in the opening Allegro brillante e molto vivace have been dismissed as ‘padding’ by dissenters. Where the First Concerto quotes Russian folk-songs, in the Second Concerto all the material comprises products of the composer’s own invention, in specific instances during the opening movement with tail end quotes repeated maybe a third or fourth time, all perfectly synchronized to the instrumental backings. The composer had taken up residence with his sister in Kamenka following his abortive marriage to Anna Davidov which nearly ended in a suicide attempt, and this marked the consolidation of his benefited support from Mme Nadezhda von Meck whom he never met. (‘As it is, I am accustomed to regard you as my unseen angel’, Tchaikovsky wrote.)

Following the commanding, martial beginning, complexity and controversy involve both the solo pianist and a vital sounding orchestra: sometimes one emerges from the other wilfully, at other moments it all sounds extraordinarily beautiful. The second subject, L’istesso tempo (cantabile clarinet falling to horns) features bird calls on solo flute, while the quiet undercurrent of commentary from the piano is particularly ravishing. There are a certain number of harmonic clashes elsewhere involving strivings to assert pianistic equilibrium over and above key deviations. Tchaikovsky also accommodates two cadenzas into a continuing span of ideas which lead to some stretched moments in his attempts to change the subject matter: The flute’s bright trills are now taken over by the soloist in an involved outburst, while the orchestra attempts to develop previous thematic material. It is interesting to compare the piano’s l.h. bass writing and r.h. treble swirls with the First Concerto’s opening movement cadenza, but now it becomes very involved. Enormous trills underplay the exposition repeat and we plunge into a thrilling new spate of writing for the movement coda with the pianist switching into double time, aided and abetted by the orchestra. While this is excusable and supportable in view of the American première by Madeleine Schiller with Theodore Thomas on the podium, then the composer himself directing the young Vasily Sapelnikov in St Petersburg, seven years on in 1888, the shadow of Robert Schumann and his Fantasy writings is very much apparent.

Most alarming was the presence on the scene of the composer’s past pupil and colleague Alexander Siloti, who set about ruthlessly truncating the music into a series of unconnected fits and starts. Following Tchaikovsky’s death, the results were taken up by every concert pianist, excepting a few courageous stalwarts, and almost led me to losing faith with Benno Moiseiwitsch’s strictures on the HMV label. Tchaikovsky had been adamant: ‘Those concessions I’ve made, and those cuts he and I have both thought up are quite sufficient!’ Independently, I tried also to obtain excuses for Siloti’s mutilation of the finale of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto when disclosing my opinions on the subject to Igor Oistrakh. He quoted his illustrious father, David who in earlier years performed the uncut ‘original’, then suddenly reverted to the ‘hacked’ Siloti edition.

The uncut first movement of the Second Concerto plays between 20 and 24.30 minutes. The transcendental Andante non troppo original slow movement, at 16 minutes plus is nonsensical in Siloti’s heavily cut version (7m. 46) with the solo roles virtually remaining in embryo. Hardly a Triple Concerto, Tchaikovsky’s original layout is more a Sérénade de chambre where violin-cello, then piano—each present their main subject matter most touchingly. Centrally, the string parties extemporize—again with originality of gesture, and a climax is reached. The music gradually sinks down for an extended coda that features a subtle harmonic/tonal shift at the close by returning to the tonic. The Allegro con fuoco finale is a dazzling Cossack dance with a dotted theme second subject in the relative minor key. No such strictures apply!

Bill Newman

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