This month sees the release of Kiril Gerstein’s new recording of the 1879 version of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, the only score the composer actually approved. He tells us about the history of the concerto.
How did there come to be more than one version of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto?
When Tchaikovsky completed this concerto in 1874 he sought the pianistic advice of Nikolai Rubinstein, who was incredibly negative about its playability and who also said it was musically worthless. Fortunately, Tchaikovsky ignored him, and had it published note for note. It had a very successful premiere; we know Hans von Bülow immediately admired it and conducted it. In 1879, Tchaikovsky heard Sergey Taneyev performing it under Rubinstein’s baton (he’d obviously changed his mind!) after which he made a few small improvements. This became the version Tchaikovsky conducted, including at the last concert he ever gave in 1893, eight days before he died. The Tchaikovsky Museum in Klin has produced a new Urtext edition based on the exact copy he used for that performance, with all his markings, and that’s what I’ve used in this recording.
So why did a third edition ever come into existence?
Ah, it seems that the piano virtuoso Alexander Siloti stepped in. He’d been a pupil of Franz Liszt and was one of Tchaikovsky’s students – and was uncle to Rachmaninov. As a performer, he saw a way of making it more flashy, more superficially brilliant, louder, more pompous, and, in his eyes, more ‘effective’. He was also closely connected to the publisher Jurgenson: various imprints were circulated, and who could trace exactly how they differed from the original manuscript? But Siloti’s edition was printed posthumously (1894), so we know Tchaikovsky never approved it.
What differences can be immediately detected?
The famous opening chords – which are often played like bombs going off at the start of a war between soloist and orchestra – are not fortissimo, and the second and third chords are actually arpeggiated, giving it a more lyrical quality and allowing the orchestra to play their important melody more flexibly – and mezzo forte as it is actually marked. People are apt to forget, those chords are an accompaniment.
First movement, opening
So why did you particularly want to bring this version to light?
Tchaikovsky always called this piece ‘my lyrical concerto’ and it’s so important to get back to that idea. This is not a warhorse, though pianists have enjoyed turning it into one. There are many small changes to the score, most not earth-shattering, small articulations and so on, but together they create a very different portrait; more Schumannesque; more subtle.
Second movement, 3'00'' – 3'55''
Does the final movement differ much?
Yes, I have felt in the past that the third movement was rather truncated and it turns out I was right. There’s the folkloric opening, the lyrical melody, and then a new idea is launched which is hardly explored before he returns to the opening material. The 1879 edition has 30 seconds more development at this point, which restores a structural balance to the movement, and, I think, a psychological balance to the whole concerto.
Third movement, 2'05'' – 3'00''
Do you hope this new edition will become the one that is performed most often?
It certainly suits some people to hold on to the old clichés, and it may suit audiences too. But I think everyone is now going to have to think hard before they perform the ‘old’ version: they will need to find a justification for performing an edition never sanctioned by the composer.
Third movement, 5'39'' – end
Kirill Gerstein’s recording of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Deutsche Symphonie Orchester Berlin is out on Monday 9 February on Myrios Classics and will be reviewed in our March issue
Photo: Marco Borggreve
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• Kirill Gerstein and the BBC Symphony Orchestra