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Tchaikovsky(1840-93) - Piano Concerto No. 1

The hypersensitive, insecure Tchaikovsky, his life a procession of alternating peaks of elation and troughs of depression, was a mess of contradictions. He was fond of bold musical gestures yet unimpressed by Beethoven, Brahms and Wagner. His confessed weakness was musical form, yet he idolised Mozart. He was a thoroughly competent composer of music for orchestra and for solo piano, yet still craved reassurance from Nicholas Rubenstein regarding his newly-minted First Piano Concerto. Rubenstein was, unfortunately, rather less than enthusiastic. He was, even more unfortunately, also rather less than diplomatic, roundly declaring the work “clumsy and unplayable, when not vulgar and chaotic”. This did little to bolster Tchaikovsky's fragile self-confidence, but he commendably gritted his teeth, declined the many suggested changes, and rededicated the work to Hans von Bülow. 

The first performance, given in Russia in 1875, was quickly followed by its American première, with such success that the finale had to be encored. Although the uncharitable might suspect the influence of potential roubles, Rubenstein subsequently changed his tune and championed it. Tchaikovsky made substantial revisions, but not until 1889, so there was no question of “amicable compromise”. Following four early operas, some orchestral pieces, string quartets, and piano pieces, the essentially “youthful” concerto was the work which thrust him into the limelight and onto the crest of a wave which would produce, within a year, Swan Lake, the Third Symphony, the Rococo Variations and Francesca da Rimini. Then he would succumb to emotional blackmail and marry, precipitating a descent into the deepest of troughs. 

Rubenstein's initial reaction, although distinctly unhelpful, was perhaps understandable. Back then, emotional “excesses” in symphonic poems - or even symphonies - were acceptable, while the concerto remained an arena for serious formal consideration. Rubenstein's outrage seemingly blinded him to the obvious. That bold introduction seemed such an extravagant effusion simply to toss away, yet it is nothing more than a grandiose expansion of the classical “slow introduction”, traditionally a disposable “scene-setter”, a small garden where many a good tune has flowered briefly. Moreover, lurking behind the subsequent “unplayable chaos” are eminently sensible forms. These are, admittedly, generally loose-limbed, the ambitious first movement in particular being a patchwork typical of Tchaikovsky's tussles with his bête noir. But overall he was clearly just amplifying the scale and emotional range of the classical concerto: sonata-form first movement, variational andante, and rondo finale. 

Form was indeed Tchaikovsky's only real weakness: for hummable tunes, vibrant colour, pungent rhythm, and gut-level emotion he was peerless. He saw the concerto as “... dealing with two equal opponents: the orchestra with its power and ... colour, opposed by the small but high-mettled piano which often comes off victorious ...” - in other words, the archetypal Romantic notion of a “battle between soloist and orchestra”. But, does this particular concerto support that view? Notwithstanding the spectacular pyrotechnics, it's less combative than, say, the finale of Brahms' Violin Concerto (which is a right old ding-dong!). There are so many passages of harmonious coexistence, and even when they are embattled I still feel the protagonists are actually “standing shoulder-to-shoulder against some common foe”. 

Grieg's Piano Concerto, written six years earlier, pioneered (I believe) the “Big Tune” finish. Perhaps Tchaikovsky adopted Grieg's idea for this concerto - he certainly admired Grieg, dedicating to him his Hamlet Overture of 1888 - and Rachmaninov, as we know, soon followed suit. 

1. Allegro non troppo e molto maestoso - allegro con spirito. That “grandiose” introduction, incorporating (shock, horror!) a major cadenza, no more than properly reflects the scale of the movement. An asymmetric thematic deployment is compensated by an overall evenhandedness, belying that supposed “chaos”. The dotted, regenerative first subject, extensively elaborated by the piano, is kept on a tight leash, whereas the second subject is considerably less restrained. It contains two themes: one introduced by soulful woodwind, the other (on strings) anticipating the Romeo and Juliet “rocking” theme. This, answered by the first subject on woodwind, kicks off (and dominates!) an explosive development. The recapitulation redresses balances: first subject briefly dispatched, second subject's first theme expanded, and second omitted altogether. Focusing on the second subject's first theme, the cadenza finally profers a hint of first subject, over which woodwind courteously intone the second subject's second theme, eventually generating a thundering coda. 

2. Andantino semplice - prestissimo - tempo primo. Over tiptoeing pizzicati, a solo flute sings a tender lullaby, subject of a set of variations in which the piano and orchestra are so intimately entwined they all but stroke one another's hair. Then, right in the middle, comes an episode of startling contrast: the piano scurries around, playfully chased by the orchestra until one loud bang sends both, a bit like naughty children, back to bed and dreaming. This central prestissimo is the one truly bold innovation, an idea utilised by Bartók in the two “Nachtmusiken” of his piano concertos. 

3. Allegro con fuoco. A vigorous, skipping Ukranian dance on the piano invites a stomping orchestral response, leaving a dizzy soloist to be gently stabilised by the strings' graceful counter-subject. Although these materials are continually varied, a classical rondo pattern, ABABA, is unmistakable. The skipping dance's third appearance sees the stomping response sidestepped for a huge, expectant crescendo, climaxing with the counter-subject blared lustily by the two comrades-in-arms. Thence to an exuberant coda on the main subject, as is of course perfectly proper in any concerto of serious formal consideration.

© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street, Kamo, Whangarei 0101, Northland, New Zealand


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