Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto #1 in B-Flat Minor

I replied that I would not alter a single note, and that I would have the concerto printed exactly as it stood.
--Tchaikovsky, reacting to Nikolai Rubinstein's harsh criticism of Piano Concerto #1

Today's CD contains one of the very few examples of CD liner notes that are not only comprehensible, but actually fun to read.
Erich Leinsdorf and the Boston Symphony Orchestra
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Misha Dichter, Piano
Piano Concerto No. 1
Violin Concerto
RCA/Papillon, 1987

In a (sadly uncredited) essay, readers learn the story about the reaction Tchaikovsky received when he showed his first piano concerto to his boss at the Moscow Conservatory, Nikolai Rubenstein:

"Rubinstein excoriated the work after a private hearing.... Tchaikovsky was pitilessly flayed for what Rubenstein charged was tawdry, plagiaristic and unpianistic. The irate pedagogue even went to the piano and burlesqued page after page."

Tchaikovsky then did what any self-respecting genius would do: he got a second opinion. He sent it to the famous German pianist and conductor Hans von Bulow, who loved the work so much that he took it with him on a concert tour of America.

It only adds to the irony that Rubenstein eventually changed his mind and came to appreciate this work. There's no accounting for taste, is there?

Listener notes for Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto #1:
1) Who doesn't find the first 30 seconds of this concerto familiar to the point of parody? And what is it about Tchaikovsky's music that makes it so easy to parody? In fact, I'd go so far to argue that this concerto, along with the love theme from Romeo and Juliet and the 1812 Overture, are three of the top four "familiar to the point of parody" classical music works (the fourth? It has to be Beethoven's Fifth Symphony).

2) After learning of the deep cynicism behind his 1812 Overture, I can't help but listen for additional cynical musical devices and other compositional tricks Tchaikovsky might have used in this work. Quite frankly, I couldn't hear any.

3) It's interesting to listen to such a ponderous and lengthy first movement (more than 20 minutes), followed by two pipsqueak movements of less than seven minutes each.

4) Listen from 10:00 to 10:43 in the first movement: have you ever heard such tension and energy build in the middle of a movement? And then it's followed by an unexpected letdown when the orchestra cuts out and the piano takes over.

5) Bad playing alert: at 12:32-12:37 in the first movement, the trombone has a prominent part and he blows it, with high school-caliber play and no sense of phrasing or control.

6) Forgive me for saying this, but I come down on Rubenstein's side of the argument (rather than von Bulow's) on the quality of this concerto. To me, there's just too much pounding away, too much instantaneous grandeur for me to enjoy this work. I'd be curious to hear other opinions, however, and I'd love to hear the opinions of any piano players out there who can comment knowledgeably on the joys (or miseries) of performing this work.

7) The second movement is an example of why I prefer Tchaikovsky at his least pretentious. His simple and beautiful melodies are more compelling to me than his grandiosity. Recall how Liszt called the second movement of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata "a flower poised between two abysses"? This movement is more like flower poised behind a hippopotamus.

8) For those of you who are curious, the subtitle for the third movement, allegro con fuoco, doesn't mean, uh, what you might think it means. It means to play quickly and in a fiery and energetic style (or, literally, fast with fire).

9) The third movement is an excellent example of the gift Tchaikovsky had for adapting folk tunes into new and compelling classical music music (this gift was shared by his fellow Russian contemporaries too, including Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov and Mussorgsky).

10) The final few passages of the third movement make for an amazing climax. First you have the build from 4:46 to 5:29, then a slight reduction in tension when the piano takes over at 5:30, then more build of tension until the huge entry of the full orchestra at 5:46. My head was about to explode!

...and then I realized I had the volume turned up just a little too high on my headphones.

Please take a look at my other blogs!
Casual Kitchen: Cook More. Think More. Spend Less.
Quick Writing Tips: Short posts on writing, twice a week.


Anonymous said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.



Daniel said...

Hi Susan, thank you for your comment, and many, many thanks for your positive vibes! You really brightened my day. :)