Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto stripped of sentimentality

Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto is many a listener’s introduction to classical music. Its heroic opening chords, its overt romanticism, and its virtuosity make it ever popular. Yet, beneath the surface lies a revolutionary work whose originality and lyricism are sometimes lost.

Tchaikovsky composed his Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor between November 1874 and February 1875. When it was nearing completion, he played it to the pianist, conductor and composer Nikolai Rubinstein, regarded as one of the greatest pianists of his time and whom Tchaikovsky was hoping would premiere it. Rubinstein damned it with faint praise. In a bitter letter to his patron Nadezhda von Meck, Tchaikovsky wrote (21 January 1878): “Any outsider who may have chanced to come into the room at that moment would have thought that I was a nitwit, an untalented scribbler without any sense at all, who had come to an eminent musician to pester him with his rubbish.”

The first performance of the concerto’s original version took place on 25 October 1875 in Boston, Massachusetts, with the eminent pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow as soloist. Wagner had entrusted him with the premières of Tristan and Isolde and The Mastersingers of Nuremberg. It was followed on 13 November by a performance in Saint Petersburg with the Russian pianist Gustav Kross and Czech conductor Eduard Nápravník. Tchaikovsky (left) thought that Kross reduced the work to “an atrocious cacophony”. The Moscow première took place one month later on 3 December, with Sergei Taneyev as soloist. The conductor was Nikolai Rubinstein, who by then had come to see the work’s merits and who was later to play the solo part many times throughout Europe.

Despite having told Rubinstein that he would publish the concerto without changing a note, Tchaikovsky accepted advice on improving the piano writing from German pianist Edward Dannreuther, who had given the first performance in London, and from Russian pianist Alexander Siloti. The magestic chords played by the soloist at the opening of the concerto may, in fact, have been Siloti’s idea, as they appear in the first edition (1875) as rolled chords. A few simplifications were also incorporated into the version published in 1879.

In the early 1990s, all the published sources were compared with Tchaikovsky’s original score, which he had used at his last public appearance before his death. Numerous discrepancies and quite a few major changes came to light. It was the same with the second and third concertos. So, pianist Andrey Hoteev and conductor Vladimir Fedoseyev worked together to present the original versions of all three works in a series of concerts in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory on 21 and 24 November 1996. Those performances were followed by their release on CD in 1998, together with the Allegro in C minor (1864), the Fantaisie de Concert (1881), and the Bohemian Melodies Fantasy (1892) – all for piano and orchestra.

As the CD notes point out, “The reading by Hoteev and Fedoseyev transports us to quite different spheres. Employing a mixture of composure and emphasis, both soloist and conductor unfold precisely those sweeping tonal landscapes which the great Russian maestro really wrote.”

Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto is probably the most recorded concerto of all time. There are some amazing versions, all of them tremendously exciting and compelling: Vladimir Horowitz, Van Cliburn, Emil Gilels, Sviatoslav Richter, Arcadi Volodos, and Martha Argerich. None can be faulted. Andrey Hoteev’s reading is distinctive for its lyrical intensity, its controlled passion, and its utter lack of sentimentality.

Seventy-five years ago the German conductor Otto Klemperer – better known, perhaps, for his affinity with Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler and Schoenberg – praised Tchaikovsky in an interview with The Los Angles Herald Tribune (13 October 1935). He said:

“Year after year the interpretation of Tchaikovsky has become more and more exaggerated, more and more hysterical and filled with false emotion, until finally and inevitably the music has become the symbol of bad taste. But if you take the trouble to go to the source of the symphonies, to examine the life of the man and the actual notes of the score, you find a sincere composer with a great melodic gift, who wrote simply and sincerely from his heart.”

The recordings are available in a boxed set of three CDs from KOCH Schwann (3-6490-2).

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