For his first orchestral album Russian/American pianist Kirill Gerstein presents
us with the world première recording of Tchaikovsky’s own 1879
version of the Piano Concerto No. 1.
How ridiculous it seems today to think that one of the greatest works
in classical music repertoire, Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto
No. 1 was denounced by Nikolai Rubinstein who had been engaged
to introduce the Concerto. Completed and published in 1875, Tchaikovsky
dedicated it to pianist Hans von Bülow who believed in the Concerto
and who gave the première in Boston, United States the same year.
After a number of early performances Tchaikovsky revised the piano
part and this second version was printed in 1879. The composer conducted
this 1879 version right up to the St. Petersburg concert in 1893 that
included the première of the Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op.
74 Pathétique, just a matter of days before he died. A year
after Tchaikovsky’s death a third version of the Piano Concerto
No. 1 appeared in print with an authorship that is difficult
to establish; although one of Tchaikovsky’s students Alexander
Siloti is sometimes mentioned as being responsible for the alterations.
Gerstein says that the third version “contains a number of editorial
changes that differ from the text of Tchaikovsky’s own score,
were not authorised by him and [were] made posthumously ... the editorial
changes made to the third version added a flavour of superficial brilliance
to the piece which also at the same time took away its genuine musical
character.” Based on Tchaikovsky’s own conducting score
from his last concert a new critical urtext of 1879 is being
published in 2015 by the Tchaikovsky House-Museum in Klin. This will
celebrate the one hundred and seventy-five year anniversary of Tchaikovsky’s
birth and mark one hundred and forty years since the première of the
Piano Concerto No. 1. Gerstein, for this recording, was “granted
special pre-publication access to the materials of the new urtext
This is a well shaped and powerful account from a pianist totally
attuned to Tchaikovsky’s world in which dramatic power blends
with grandeur. There is some unerringly sensitive and beautifully
lyrical playing by Gerstein in the Andantino semplice
and the Finale draws striking playing from the soloist together
with a joyous poetic quality to be found only in the finest accounts.
The most compelling and rewarding account of the Tchaikovsky —
that I know — is the stunning live 1994 Philharmonie, Berlin
account from Martha Argerich and the Berliner Philharmoniker under
Claudio Abbado on Deutsche Grammophon. In addition Argerich recorded
another exceptional live account in 1980 at Munich with the Symphonieorchester
des Bayerischen Rundfunks under Kirill Kondrashin on Philips. Another
recording to admire is the re-mastered mono account played by Shura
Cherkassky and the Berliner Philharmoniker. The Cherkassky lingers
long in the memory and was recorded in 1955 under Leopold Ludwig at
the Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin for Deutsche Grammophon.
When Prokofiev introduced his Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor,
Op. 16 at Pavlovsk near St. Petersburg in 1913 the audience reaction
was negative. There was a lot of hissing with a large number leaving
the hall during the performance. The score was thought destroyed during
the turmoil of the Russian Revolution in 1923 so the exiled Prokofiev
reconstructed the entire score using a two-piano reduction manuscript
his mother had brought out of Russia. Twice as long as the earlier
D flat major Concerto the immense technical demands of the
Concerto No. 2 are some of the most challenging in the whole
repertoire, on the margins of what is possible to play.
Clearly Kirill Gerstein is in his element with the exacting and tempestuous
nature of the writing. This is especially telling in the opening movement
which draws the listener into the contrasting moods. The sense of
resolute engagement is notable. In the vigorously whirling Scherzo
and the unsettling Intermezzo Gerstein supplies lithe buoyancy
whilst always maintaining total control.
Of the alternative recordings of the Prokofiev I prize the account
by Jean-Efflam Bavouzet and the BBC Philharmonic under Gianandrea
Noseda. Recorded in 2013 at the BBC Studios, MediaCityUK, Salford,
Bavouzet is in remarkable form. He plays with burning commitment.
The account forms part of his complete set of the five piano concertos
On my standard player this hybrid SACD has good sound which is clear
with an excellent balance between the soloist’s Steinway D and
the orchestra. I enjoyed reading Gerstein's informative essay
about both works in the booklet notes.
This musical collaboration is an especially fruitful one in which
the lyrical and dramatic elements are perceptively balanced. Gaffigan
holds his elite orchestral forces together steadfastly and with precision,
focus and fluidity.
It is fascinating to hear Tchaikovsky’s original intentions
for his Piano Concerto No. 1 coupled with Prokofiev’s
turbulent Piano Concerto No. 2 especially in performances
as outstanding as these.
And another review...
This disc’s USP is the first recording of what Kirill Gerstein argues
was Tchaikovsky’s final word on his first piano concerto. It was this
version that Tchaikovsky was conducting shortly before his death,
and the booklet notes suggest that posthumous changes were made to
the score which the composer never sanctioned. It is that version
that has made its mark on the public consciousness, but Gerstein has
done us a service in restoring what he believes to be Tchaikovsky’s
true intentions, though I think it’s only partially successful. The
booklet note contains more detail for the interested scholar.
If you know the work then you’ll certainly notice some changes, but
there aren’t actually that many of them. The most obvious one comes
right at the beginning as the strings sail into that great theme that
launches the work. In the version that most of us know, the piano
accompanies them with thunderous fistfuls of chords, but here those
chords are transformed into fairly delicate arpeggios, and the effect
is very surprising. It’s altogether sweeter, and it even has the effect
of making the main string theme sound smaller and more intimate, too,
though no doubt that's also down to Gaffigan's decision-making
as conductor. That delicacy seems to affect the rest of the reading
of the first movement’s main Allegro. The presentation of themes is
more discreet and exploratory than usual, and not until the torrent
of octaves that launches the cadenza of the development does Gerstein
become more noticeably extroverted. The orchestral colour is similar,
with gorgeously sweet winds in lyrical second theme.
Most of the other changes to the concerto are fairly minimal. The
Andantino feels slightly faster than usual, and the speed of the central
section is light-footed and dances beautifully. There are cosmetic
changes to the piano part in finale — an extra ripple here or there
— and there is a brief extra episode tagged on to one of the more
familiar sections of the Rondo, but it doesn't add that much.
Nor, to my ears, did Gerstein’s and Gaffigan’s more discreet approach
to the concerto. To my ears, it could have done with a bit more barnstorming.
It’s all admirably clear, but only in the final cadenza did my pulse
start to quicken. The notes argue that this version gives the work
a more Schumannesque conception. Well, maybe, though I’m not sure
I buy that. Will it catch on? We'll see.
Gerstein is on surer ground in Prokofiev, though. The piano sings
the opening theme beautifully, and the second theme has a rakish quality,
like a sideways glance. There is rippling sensuality to the first
movement’s central cadenza; beautiful, virtuosic and impressively
lyrical at the same time and the orchestra enters magisterially as
it draws to an end. The scherzo is delicate and helter-skelter, almost
like a perpetuum mobile, breathless in its intensity. The
third movement opens with oppressive heaviness, and Gerstein effectively
treads the difficult line between weight and the movement of the dance.
At one point Gaffigan seems to lead the orchestra like a marching
band and it works very well. It curdles into a dance of death in the
final minute, before the explosive anarchy of the finale bursts onto
the scene. It’s tempestoso, indeed, but the central episode
still feels lively, even if it's actually slower.
However, it feels very thoughtful into the bargain: the cadenza seems
to turn over the movement's ideas while growing in power and
vigour, and the ending feels zany but also satisfyingly conclusive.