17 Apr 2013

Tchaikovsky – Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor, op. 23

by Jeff counts

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, strings

Duration: 32 minutes in three movements.

THE COMPOSER – PIOTR ILYICH TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893) – As successful as he already was as a composer in late 1874, Tchaikovsky (prone to insecurity even in the best of times) was very anxious to receive the approval of eminent pianist Nicholai Rubenstein on his new concerto. Tchaikovsky presented it to Rubenstein privately on Christmas Eve and the story of the pianist’s immediate and rather unfriendly disapproval has become legendary, thanks to the composer’s willingness to tell the tale.     

THE MUSIC – “Clumsy…badly written…vulgar…with only two or three pages worth preserving.” These were among the uncharitable assessments Nikolai Rubenstein offered upon hearing the 1st Piano Concerto. To his credit, Tchaikovsky weathered the storm of critique with dignity and, according to his letters, he refused to rewrite the piece according to Rubenstein’s demands by stating, “I shall not alter a single note.” With the dream of a Rubenstein performance now dashed, Tchaikovsky rededicated the concerto to Hans van Bülow, who played the 1875 premiered in Boston. The reaction of the audience was overwhelmingly positive and, in that bygone 18th and 19th century ovation tradition, they demanded an encore of the entire last movement on the spot. Successful European premieres were soon to follow and it wasn’t long before the leading soloists of the day (including, yes, one Nikolai Rubenstein!) began adding it to their regular repertoire. An overstatement of the 1st Concerto’s current popularity would be difficult to accomplish. Other than those initial harsh comments on Christmas Eve of 1874, this music has known nothing other than the most rabid possible praise and loyalty. The stunning introduction alone, which contains one of Tchaikovsky’s most enduring tunes (a tune that strangely never returns once the concerto proper has commenced), is worthy of enshrinement. Rubenstein’s early objections likely centered on the historical shift he was witnessing. He knew the concerto form, then among the last bastions of Classical-era tradition, would never be the same.                      

THE WORLD – Other important world premieres occurred in 1875. Among them were The Moldau by Smetana and Carmen by Bizet. BYU was established in 1875 (first as the Brigham Young Academy) and Matthew Webb became the first person to swim the English Channel.

THE CONNECTION – Tchaikovsky’s 1st Piano Concerto is programmed regularly by the Utah Symphony. The most recent Masterworks performance was in 2012. Andrey Boreyko conducted and Conrad Tao was soloist.