Saturday, March 12, 2011

A. Rubinstein: Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No 1

Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No 1, 1st Movement, Part 1: Rubinstein Rec 1932. This is the definitive 1932 recording that many critics say is the best rendition of the piece composed by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky [1840-1893] in 1874. It premiered in Boston in 1875.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky [1840-1893]: Portrait done by Nikolay Kuznetsov, 1893. After completing the piece in 1874, Tchaikovsky showed it to the great Russian pianist, Nikolai Rubinstein, his mentor,  who was initially unimpressed. As Tchaikovsky wrote afterward: "I played the first movement. Not a word, not a remark. If you only knew how disappointing, how unbearable it is when a man offers his friend a dish of his work, and the other eats and remains silent!"
Credit:Nikolay Kuznetsov, 1893.
Source: State Tretiakov Gallery, Moscow

Here is a fine narrative, by Barbara Heninger, fleshing out Tchaikovsky's temperament and the brief history of this piece:
Yet the oft-told tale of the Piano Concerto's conception reminds us that even Tchaikovsky's melodies could fail to charm. He completed the work in December of 1874, and dedicated it to his teacher and friend, the great Russian pianist Nikolai Rubinstein.

Rubinstein's brother Anton had brought Tchaikovsky to Moscow in 1866 as a music theory teacher for the new Moscow Conservatory; Tchaikovsky roomed with Nikolai, and the brothers promoted the young composer's works in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Tchaikovsky was not a pianist and wanted Nikolai's opinion about the suitability of his first piano concerto. So on Christmas Eve, Tchaikovsky played it for his mentor.
He described the scene in a letter to a friend: "I played the first movement. Not a word, not a remark. If you only knew how disappointing, how unbearable it is when a man offers his friend a dish of his work, and the other eats and remains silent!"

Tchaikovsky played the entire piece and then, he wrote, Rubinstein told him it was "worthless, impossible to play, the themes have been used before ... there are only two or three pages that can be salvaged and the rest must be thrown away!"
Rubinstein offered to play the piece if Tchaikovsky rewrote it, but the composer replied, "I won't change a single note," and instead gave it to the pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow. Von Bülow did not share Rubinstein's distaste, and premiered the work in Boston on October 25, 1875.

Though a critic there called it an "extremely difficult, strange, wild, ultra-modern Russian Concerto," the audience was enthusiastic, as was a second audience in New York a week later, demanding an encore of the final movement.

Rubinstein later recanted and performed the piece as well, while fifteen years later Tchaikovsky made some of the changes Rubinstein had requested. Rubinstein's criticisms still have merit, for the piece is in some places nearly unplayable, while other passages for the soloist are barely audible. And the famous opening theme, for all its grandeur, is just as remarkable in its disappearance -- for after storming in with blaring horns calls, sweeping strings, and maestoso ascending chords from the piano, the theme continues for only 110 measures and simply drops out of the piece, never to be heard again.
As for Arthur Rubinstein, the twentieth century pianist, Harvey Sachs writes in Rubinstein, a Life that "Rubinstein was justifiably proud of his first (1932) recording of the concerto. with Barbirolli and the London Symphony: it is dynamic and virtuosic even vertiginous—and it demonstrates once and again, that Rubinstein, especially during the first two thirds of his career, had little reason to envy Horowitz or anyone's keyboard technique."

For many persons, myself included, this is both a beautiful and powerful piece. Other versions can be heard here, including, once gain, A. Rubinstein playing with the Boston Symphony (1963), Erich Leisendorf, conductor; Daniel Barenboim with the Berlin Philharmonic (1997) at Waldbühne during St. Petersburg Night; Zubin Metha, conductor; and Evgeny Kissin with the Berlin Philharmonic (1988);  Herbert von Karajan, conductor, his last appearance with the famous orchestra

What an impressive line-up of pianists playing a piece that still gives us much pleasure more than a century after Tchaikovsky composed it.