Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Op 23 (1874)
Peter Ilyitch Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
- Allegro non troppo e molto maestoso – allegro con spirito
- Andantino semplice – prestissimo – tempo primo
- Allegro con fuoco
Composed prior to his disastrous marriage, which led to a downward spiral of mental anguish, Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto propelled him to a burst of success that saw him compose, in less than a year, Swan Lake, the third symphony and Francesca da Rimini. Today this concerto is one of the most popular pieces in the piano repertoire, but, always insecure, Tchaikovsky was anxious to secure the approval of the virtuoso pianist Nicholas Rubinstein. Alas, Rubinstein described it as “clumsy and unplayable, when not vulgar and chaotic”. Tchaikovsky vowed “I shall not alter a single note” and re-dedicated it to the distinguished pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow. The premiere by von Bülow in Boston in 1875 was a triumph, with the final movement being encored. Rubinstein eventually came round and he and his pupils became ardent advocates of the concerto around Europe.
On the face of it, Rubinstein’s concern was understandable. This appeared to be a concerto like none other before it. The famous introduction, with blazing horns followed by crashing chords on the piano and a grandiose theme eventually leading to a piano cadenza, seems totally novel, but in fact is just a grand elaboration of the introduction found in many classical concertos. The theme is not used again, and the apparent ensuing chaos of the following Allegro con spirito section masks a loose sonata-form structure typical of Tchaikovsky. Never a master of classical form, Tchaikovsky makes up for this self-confessed limitation with unforgettable melodies, incisive rhythms and an ability to plumb the depths of human emotions.
Tchaikovsky 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…” as in the second movement. The gorgeous opening lullaby on the flute is the theme of a series of variations in which the piano and orchestra are intertwined. An unexpected scampering dance-like interlude intervenes before the original theme returns.
The lively Ukrainian dance theme that opens the last movement eventually leads to one of Tchaikovsky’s most famous “big tunes”. After a long orchestral crescendo and dramatic climax the work ends with an exhilarating coda.
Performed: June 2017