Tchaikovsky Grand Piano Sonata in G, op. 37

performed by Sviatoslav Richter

History does funny things to music. In the more famous cases (as we shall shortly see why), the world nearly forgot about something, or ignored it, or derided it, and it was only later generations or geniuses who championed a composer or work to bring it to the world. And one can see how that would seem like ‘most cases’, because the world is likely very unaware of the opposite. Unless you’re a pretty dedicated music person of some kind (even just listener), you probably don’t know much about the success that people like Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf, or Joachim Raff, or (tragically and far more recently and thus even more perplexing) William Schuman enjoyed in their own day, only to be quickly and largely forgotten.

Today’s piece is a bit like that. Tchaikovsky wrote his piano sonata, with some difficulty, in 1878. It’s interesting that in the composition of this work, he struggled so much with what he felt to be a lack of inspiration, of grinding his gears over each bar of the piece, while with The Seasons, he worked simply from an idea from which the twelve character pieces were drawn. For a sonata, though, it’s a much more complex form, and of it, he says:

I’m working on a sonata for piano… [and its composition] does not come easily. …I worked unsuccessfully, with little progress… I’m again having to force myself to work, without much enthusiasm. I can’t understand why it should be the case that, in spite of so many favourable circumstances, I’m not in the mood for work… I’m having to squeeze out of myself weak and feeble ideas, and ruminate over each bar. But I keep at it, and hope that inspiration will suddenly strike.[3]

He got distracted by his widely-known violin concerto, and picked up work on the sonata again after the concerto was completed. It seems that maybe the hiatus away from the sonata was a good thing, because it appears he finished the work rather quickly after returning to it. Nikolai Rubinstein performed the premiere, of which the composer says:

The Sonata was performed… with such unattainable perfection, that I could not have stayed to listen to anything more, so I left the hall completely enraptured.[5]

But for some reason or other, it hasn’t maintained the stature in the repertoire (according to Wikipedia or my own experience) that other sonatas have. It’s undoubtedly a biggish work, but no longer than the famous Chopin sonatas, or the Liszt, or many others, and I haven’t seen it on any programs that I can recall in all my concertgoing time.

The first movement follows a pretty straightforward sonata form, and this is the beef of the work. Not only is it the longest movement, but it introduces the ‘Grand Motif’ for this ‘grand sonata.’ One expects from all the ‘grand’ labeling that there’s something that makes this sonata different, like Liszt’s double function form or some kind of higher order of organization. At the very least, the ‘Grand Motif’ is a recurring element throughout the work, which does give it a greater unity or overall structure.

So the first movement bears quite a lot of weight for not only itself but for the whole work. It’s a vivid, lively, colorful, intense movement, and if Chopin’s piano writing stands out for being intensely pianistic, Liszt’s sonata for being of outstanding depth and complex structure, then the standout quality of at least the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s sonata is the orchestral, vivid colorful nature of the piano writing. The opening theme is marchy, triumphant stately and memorable, as it should be. This might be the greatest execution of a sonata form in Tchaikovsky’s writing… I think the concertos and other things don’t really follow that form to the letter, which isn’t a criticism, but this does seem like an achievement in his efforts with the form.

The second movement, though, moves on to something even more familiar and comfortable for the composer. It’s the slow movement, andante non troppo quasi moderato. As anyone who’s ever heard the name likely knows, Tchaikovsky was an adept lyricist, so the slow movement feels also like one of the composer’s strengths. It’s not melodic like something cheery and light from a ballet; it’s quite heavy and intense at times, but broad and spacious and expressive. The length of this movement added to that of the first give this sonata a very front-heavy feel, since the two movements that follow it are much shorter. The specific flavor of melancholy in this movement is a nice one, actually. It’s not the affected, overly woe-is-me wallowing tragedy of the Pathetique, and it’s not angry violent bitterness, but a more mellow, pensive expression of… well, reality, of loss and regret and all the rest, but without sulking. At least that’s how I hear it. There are also some tenderly beautiful moments of less melancholic writing, and it feels very pianistic, very natural.

These two movements make up about two thirds of the work, and after all the grandness, we’re left with two much smaller movements. The third is a tiny scherzo, interesting for sounding like piano works that would come decades later in its ornateness and the vocabulary it uses. I wouldn’t have associated Tchaikovsky’s name with this type of writing, but it doesn’t last long, and with its style and brevity, it feels almost more like an interlude, but a very interesting one, like a single little solo piece of salon music.

And what does the grand finale of this grand sonata hold? Lots of technical challenges. The opening sounds almost etude-like in its speed and technical difficulty, but then one hears the “galloping Allegro that is very much characteristic of Tchaikovsky’s musical style,” as Wiki states. There are slower contrasting passages, but one gets the impression that this is a pretty serious fireworks show of a finale. Through all the virtuosic stuff and cascades of notes, one does hear glimmering melodies and memorable lines that are to be expected from this composer. It’s not difficult to hear the individual elements of this movement, but it still leaves me feeling that it’s still just on the edge of something truly breathtakingly incredible… if it would stay still for a few extra moments and explore some of this content in greater detail, or not move around so much.

If I didn’t know any better, I’d say the last two movements were finished years after the first two, because they seem more effortless, they’re shorter, and less inhibited in some way, even if they don’t steal my heart either. They also seem more daring in some of the language. I have to say the first movement of this work is by far my favorite. It seems the most….Tchaikovskian to me. That being said, I had…. (not high hopes but)… anticipations of this work being a monumental, transcendental sonata, of the scale, and more importantly depth, of the Liszt sonata, for some reason. Even the composer calls it ‘Grand’. But I have to say it didn’t blow me away.

There is a point, though, where I’m not sure if I’ve come to love a piece because of its own merits, or if I’ve just become familiar enough with it that there’s some inherent charm in knowing what’s coming next. I wasn’t initially blown away by this work, to be sure, and I haven’t listened to it on repeat enough to be hypnotized by what’s been presented here. That’s no criticism of the work, but maybe at some point in the future something with it will click and I’ll see it from the right angle and recognize its beauty.

It is at this point that we take quite a forward leap in piano music. We have a few chamber works that linger in the latest years of the 19th century, but from this 1878 work, we jump ahead to the piano works of the early 20th century, and we’ll spend most of the rest of the series in that first decade, where it seems a lot happened, so stay tuned.

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