Tchaikovsky piano concerto no. 1 in Bb minor, op. 23

performed by the Orchestra de la Suisse Romande under Charles Dutoit, Martha Argerich, piano
(I have her recording of the piece with Leningrad under Kondrashin that I also quite like)
Also, watch this too….
If you read nothing else, watch the videos, and read the very last paragraph… 
For such an oddball kind of piece, this concerto is still undeniably one of the most famous in the repertoire, perhaps the most famous. Or should I say for such an enduring piece, it’s kind of an oddball. I don’t know which should come first; for most audiences I suppose, it’s the latter, because a lot of the oddball stuff about this piece probably wouldn’t be as obvious to a passive listener as it would be to musicologists, professionals or listeners of Tchaikovsky’s day. What’s odd about it? 
It’s in a minor key, but that theme that everyone knows, that glorious beautiful wings-spread out soaring melody, is not in the home key, it’s in the relative major. That same theme, as enduring and trademark-y as it is, never comes back, not even anything like it. One would think you could really get a lot of mileage out of something so beautiful, but we will see that Tchaikovsky can do lots of beautiful things with lots of other material. The traditional inner continuity of the movement is not really there. There are some key changes and stuff, but in general, it’s just an odd piece, with lots of storm and drama and emotion and romance that finally culminates in a Bb major triumph. That all being said, with seemingly unrelated subjects and themes (we’ll get there soon) aside, nearly

every minute of this piece is jam-packed with memorable, strikingly gorgeous moments. It’s one of those pieces that I rarely listen to, but when I do, I wonder why I don’t listen to it more often.

It seems writing music for your friends when you can’t really play their instruments (at least according to them) can turn a relationship sour. It seems his other  intended soloists for the violin concerto and the Rococo variations also had some not-so-nice feedback about their respective pieces that strained relationships. 
Tchaikovsky’s desired pianist here, Nikolai Rubinstein, heavily criticized the piece, which was perhaps the reason it was revised and edited after that first version in 1875 (first performed on October 25, 1875 in Boston with Hans von Bülow, to whom the piece was ultimately dedicated, at the keys, which was a huge success with the audience, to the point that he played the finale again, but not so warmly received by critics) until its final version in 1888. The quote  about Tchaikovsky’s account of the response to the piece from the Wikipedia article is abbreviated below:

R’s eloquent silence was of the greatest significance. He seemed to be saying: “My friend, how can I speak of detail when the whole thing is antipathetic?” I fortified myself with patience and played through to the end. Still silence. I stood up and asked, “Well?” Then a torrent poured from Nikolay Grigoryevich’s mouth, gentle at first, then more and more growing into the sound of a Jupiter Tonana. It turned out that my concerto was worthless and unplayable; passages were so fragmented, so clumsy, so badly written that they were beyond rescue; the work itself was bad, vulgar; in places I had stolen from other composers; only two or three pages were worth preserving; the rest must be thrown away or completely rewritten.

Even the dedication of the piece carries some history. It was originally to be dedicated to Rubinstein, but his harsh words about the piece changed that. There was apparently also a dedication to Sergei Taneyev, who played the Moscow premiere of the piece in December of 1875 (under none other than Nikolai Rubinstein, who later retracted his criticisms and became a supporter of the piece). The dedication to Taneyev was scratched out and ultimately given to von Bülow. Tchaikovsky did, however, so appreciate Rubinstein’s later advocacy for the piece that the composer promised the dedication of his second piano concerto to him. Rubinstein had already earned the dedication for Tchaikovsky’s first symphony. 
He also expressed in letters to his brother Modest that he was having some difficulty writing this first concerto and that the material was not coming easily. Who’d know by listening to it? It seems there would be enough raw material here, enough subject matter, to be able to write four or five concertos from. 
The first movement takes up the bulk of the piece, around two thirds of the total time, and is therefore longer than some entire concertos; this is similar to the Chopin from last week. Even more exaggerated, though, is that while Chopin had after his twenty-something-minute first movement, he had two roughly ten-minute movements. This is also the case in most of Beethoven’s piano concertos, so a slightly larger first movement isn’t odd. Tchaikovsky’s following two movements total around 14 minutes tops, the last two together noticeably shorter than the first movement.  
The first movement has that amazing opening theme that we hear twice and then never again, and it’s followed by seemingly unrelated music. There are ideas as to the composer’s “high degree of planning and calculation” in his use of the folk themes here due to a certain motivic relationship, but I don’t follow it. Those are Francis Maes’ words, and you can find the full quote here. He speaks of the use of folk songs throughout the piece and their motivic links (a Ukrainian song in the first, French in the second and Russian and Ukrainian for the third. These are things listeners of the day would have been more likely to recognize and appreciate the inventiveness of than for listeners today. Maybe) That being said, this sort of harmonic and lyrical inventiveness is nearly impossible for me to hear or follow, but we get that kind of familiarity instead of repeated or established motifs in the first movement. (In fact, the repeat of that opening theme here is not in this movement, nor in any other movement from this piece. For the repeat, you must look to a different piece from a different composer in a different century: this theme is one of the quotes in Schnittke’s first symphony, right about here. You can’t miss it). 
The latter two movements have more of a structure to them, or at least one that I can identify. The second movement is in a ternary form and the third in a rough and inventive binary (?) type form. 
Some people (or at least the great Stephen Hough [did you watch the video above?] and my harp friend) prefer the latter two concertos to this one, but truth be told, I can’t speak to them. I have a recording of each of them somewhere, but have never listened to them. In contrast, Tchaikovsky himself claimed to like the first more than the other two (the third having been published posthumously, as it was incomplete at the time of his death). 
Something I saw online a few days ago got me to thinking, but I could be way off base since I haven’t actually read the article yet. It was about a lady who did a study about repetition in music based on some “experiments” with the music of Luciano Berio based on the idea that a certain amount of repetition in music obviously breeds familiarity and therefore…. A certain amount of fondness. I got to thinking about that in the context of sonata form, establishing “home” keys and subjects that eventually (usually) return at the end, giving the piece both tension and direction, an entire narrative. Other concertos, including the Grieg, do that (we will talk about my thoughts on the Grieg in the context of this piece below). Tchaikovsky does not. In fact, there are other more minor themes in the piece that are repeated more than once, while that famous wall of sound at the beginning that SHOULD be our main subject is never to be heard again. 
My thought here is that perhaps what Tchaikovsky lacks in structure-based repetition (and therefore familiarity) he makes up for in striking beauty. It may just be me, but this piece seems like a piano ballet. Truth be told, I know practically nothing about ballet, but I do know that it seemed to have courses through Tchaikovsky’s veins.
By the time this piece was written, he’d already published an opera, a ballet, and his first two symphonies, among other smaller works. It is insightful to understand a bit about his first symphony, for it gave him significant problems, and was a piece for which he also received stern feedback from his teachers. Much of his issue was in making use of Western sonata form structure along with his amazing talent for melody. I would love to quote the whole thing here, but go read this section of the Wikipedia article about Tchaikovsky’s first. I believe it is very telling. In part, it reads:

Tchaikovsky freely confessed later in life that he could not write within the proper rules of Western sonata form—those rules of exposition and organic growth and development of themes that Germanic composers such as Haydn and Mozart had invented. Anton Rubinstein was a slavish follower of those rules in his own works. That may in turn have been a handicap for Tchaikovsky in writing Winter Dreams. He could not write a symphony that would please Rubinstein by staying firmly within a classical format while writing music that would stay true to his strengths as a composer

Even in his later symphonies, he apparently struggled with the form. That’s not to say he wrote poorly or ineffectively. I adore his fourth symphony; he himself admitted in letters to various people that pieces like his first symphony, grand piano sonata, and this piece gave him trouble. It seems his solution in this case was to do away with the idea altogether. In my opinion, he rests the success of this piece solely on its amazing beauty. And here he succeeds. He can show off his strength as a melodies in a format that perhaps isn’t as strictly demanding of a rigid structure (even though the concerto does typically follow a sonata form). The piano is his main character and she dances through the concerto as she pleases, jumping from idea to idea, again, ideas that the audience of the day may have recognized and appreciated. There are moments in the very lovely third movement where you may begin to think we are finally coming back to the main idea, a home theme, a focal point, as in the cyclical format of his later symphonies, but no. The piece, for all its individual moments of satisfaction, ends without the kind of closure you may get from someone else. That’s okay, but it may be a little bit disappointing. Maybe not disappointing as much as just slightly less satisfying. 
Here’s the important bit. 
I would characterize it kind of in the same category as the Grieg concerto, which I absolutely LOVE, even though pianists (or some of my pianist friends, at least) sort of turn their noses up at it for its ever-presentness and near-cliche status. It’s a fantastically enjoying piece of music, but for some reason or other…. Doesn’t have an enduring quality to it that keeps you begging for more. My guess is that it’s just that wonderful, it’s so purdy, that it is a bit rich. It’s like…. Pralines, or fudge, or lemon curd or something. They’re delicious, but you can’t sit down and eat a whole plate. It’s too much. So I feel like this piece is kind of like that… It’s so terribly delicious and satisfying in an almost gratuitous way that it’s unadvisable to sit down to a heaping plate of Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto. A listen now and then is enough, and when it’s as infrequent as that, you can always enjoy that bite, and look back, and wonder why you haven’t enjoyed it more recently. But that’s part of the enjoyment of it. So, every few months, sit back and enjoy a listen of this piano concerto. You certainly don’t have to try to enjoy it. I definitely had to try to get all of this written…. 

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