Tchaikovsky(1840-93) - Piano Concerto No. 1
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
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.
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
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
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.
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”.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
© Paul Serotsky
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