Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1: a guide to his famous piano masterpiece and its best recordings
Claire Jackson explains how this king of the concert hall triumphed despite its inauspicious start in life, and presents the best recordings of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1
The story of how Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 entered the world sounds a warning to all composers to ignore those fickle critics.
Keen to persuade Nikolai Rubinstein to give its premiere, Tchaikovsky played the piece from start to finish in the company of the eminent pianist. Rubinstein remained quiet throughout – before dismissing the work in no uncertain terms.
The snub stung Tchaikovsky, who conveyed the details of this disastrous read-though in a letter he wrote some three years after the incident. According to the composer, Rubinstein had expressed his opinion that ‘only two or three pages were worth preserving; the rest must be thrown away or completely rewritten’ because the concerto was ‘badly written as to be beyond rescue’.
Tchaikovsky – at some emotional cost – stood by his work, which was premiered not by Rubinstein, but by Hans von Bülow, who performed it with a freelance orchestra under Benjamin Johnson Lang in Boston on 25 October 1875. The Concerto, which was revised several times by Tchaikovsky (the 1888 version is the most commonly played), has gone on to become one of the most popular works in the piano repertoire and is a staple in competition finals.
Like the Mozart concertos, it can be both frothy and deeply complex, leading many pianists to revisit it at various points in their career, exploring different aspects along the way. Emil Gilels made a handful of recordings of the Concerto and Martha Argerich has so far released three. The piece has never been out of fashion, recorded by pianists across generations, from Claudio Arrau to Haochen Zhang.
As for Rubinstein, he made a U-turn on his denouncement, and – possibly to show that there were no hard feelings Tchaikovsky continued to dedicate compositions to the Russian virtuoso, including his Second Piano Concerto.
A guide to Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1
The punchy brass and striking chords that open the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto provide one of the most memorable passages in classical music (as the RPO knew well when choosing it to open its Hooked On Classics single in 1981). The style recalls the percussive beginning to Grieg’s Piano Concerto (composed in 1868), which similarly melts into lively conversation between soloist and ensemble.
But before that integration, the declamatory piano part set over soaring strings in the grand introduction rouses even the most fatigued listener. Not for nothing is the movement a popular fixture in ‘classical music to drive to’ playlists, and it was also recently used as a shoo-in to replace the Russian national anthem at the 2020 Olympics, where Russian athletes competed under the Russian Olympic Committee after the World Anti-Doping Agency had banned the country’s formal participation at all international sporting events.
At first, the opening appears to be almost a separate piece in itself – the big chordal melody does not make an obvious return throughout the movement. The gorgeous, but meandering, development may have been what Rubinstein objected to in that unsuccessful preview; the subtle evolution against sudden changes in texture was unusual for the period.
After one of several ‘false endings’, the piano takes on a galloping melody based on a folksong Tchaikovsky had heard in Ukraine, sung by a blind beggar accompanying himself on the hurdy-gurdy. The creeping urgency is underlined by woodwind echoes and flourishes. The playful Allegro con spirito theme appears again towards the end of the section, moving into a growling, rumbling piano part that, after another extended cadenza, reaches a virtuosic finish. The final ascending figures require both grit and glitter.
The second and third movements are significantly shorter than the first. The middle Andantino semplice begins with a charming flute solo that introduces a lush piano melody. Unlike the first movement, where the piano takes a combative role, here the soloist settles into deeper exchange with the orchestra. There is great variation in the interpretation of ‘andantino’: Stephen Hough and the Minnesota Orchestra under Osmo Vänskä offer a sprightly 6:19 minutes in their 2010 recording, while Lang Lang, Daniel Barenboim and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra squeeze out every phrase in their 8:05 minute version, recorded in 2003.
The theme in the third movement is also based on a Ukrainian song, this time derived from one of the tunes collected by Balakirev that Tchaikovsky had then arranged for piano duet. A perky, angular dance becomes expansive and lyrical, with call-and-response between piano and orchestra. Scrambling scales begin the extended build-up to the Concerto’s conclusion, aided by rumbling timpani and unison orchestral rhythms. Taking inspiration from Liszt, Tchaikovsky finishes with a fast chromatic ascent, split between alternate hands – a pianistic tour de force that never fails to raise a smile.
The best recordings of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1
Van Cliburn (piano)
RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra/Kirill Kondrashin
With bravura fanfares and tender reflections – all requiring pristine technique – it’s no wonder that Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto has long been a competition favourite. Beatrice Rana’s flawless performance of the work at the Montreal International Music Competition in 2011 won her first prize; her follow-up performance in 2014 at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition led to a Warner Classics recording with Antonio Pappano and the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia that was a strong contender for this category.
Rana has followed in the footsteps of Van Cliburn, the Texan pianist who gave his name to the quadrennial competition, and who also gave a career-changing performance of the Tchaikovsky Concerto. In 1958, Van Cliburn arrived in Moscow to participate in the inaugural International Tchaikovsky Competition. By the time he played the Concerto in the final (with the Moscow Radio Symphony under Kirill Kondrashin), he had become known affectionately as ‘Vanyusha’ or ‘Vanyitschka’. Jurors were nervous about giving an American first place – the competition had been held in part to showcase Soviet cultural supremacy and distrust between the US and USSR was ever increasing. But in a show of artistic unity, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev is reported to have said that the best pianist should win, no matter what their nationality. Van Cliburn repeated his winning performance of the Tchaikovsky Concerto back in the US, having invited Kirill Kondrashin to join him on an impromptu tour. The concerto was performed twice in Carnegie Hall, where this recording was made.
Van Cliburn takes the opening big chords at a pleasant, stately pace, imbuing the cascading melody with a restrained power. The fragmented notes of the middle section are beautifully clear, as is the rumbling lower-octave section (in some recordings the phrase seems to disappear off an edge). The piano does feel a little tinny towards the end of the movement, but not enough to distract from an otherwise triumphant account.
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The Andantino semplice is more elongated than many modern readings – with the exception of Kissin (see above). Yet the sentimentality is leavened by a thrilling finale complete with a blistering keyboard ascent.
Martha Argerich (piano)
Deutsche Grammophon 449 8162
Martha’s Argerich’s third recording of the concerto, with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and Claudio Abbado in 1994, has the edge on her previous version with Kirill Kondrashin. There’s no messing about with the big tunes, those early chords are perfectly placed, the second movement is subtle and luxurious, and the final Allegro is spun like silk. Without imposing her personality, Argerich manages to make it seem like Tchaikovsky intended this piece for her all along.
Daniil Trifonov (piano)
Daniil Trifonov won the Tchaikovsky Competition in 2011 and the Concerto was recorded as part of a compilation album shortly after. Joined for the occasion by the Mariinsky Orchestra and Valery Gergiev, Trifonov gives a sublime performance that earns him a place in the top division. The second movement is beautifully paced, zipping towards a colourful patchwork Allegro and a ravishing finale. The piano has a bright-but-rounded tone, particularly noticeable in the build-up to the Allegro con spirito, which may not suit all tastes.
Vladimir Ashkenazy (piano)
Decca 483 2584
Recorded at the Walthamstow Assembly Hall in 1963, this even-handed account has a vintage fuzziness to the sound quality that suits Ashkenazy’s pianism. Although the solo part itself isn’t in high-definition, the balance works well, with beautiful ensemble playing and curiously sharp brass from the London Symphony Orchestra. Ashkenazy takes a reserved approach to the cadenza at the end of the first movement, unbuttoning somewhat in a second movement that is pure Romanticism, before running wild in a free-flowing finale – conductor Lorin Maazel just about manages to keep those unison rhythms under control.
And one to avoid…
The 1989 Deutsche Grammophon recording by the then wunderkind Yevgeny Kissin and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra with Herbert von Karajan is discombobulating. The slow speeds and ample rubato were doubtless intended to be meaningful introspection, but feel mannered. The Andantino semplice in particular is far too drawn out – the flute and strings sound as though they are about to fall asleep – and the outer movements lack the wit other pianists permit the piece.
Journalist Claire Jackson regularly writes for BBC Music Magazine and Opera Now, and the Big Issue. She has also written for Country Life and Pianist, as well as industry titles including Classical Music and International Arts Manager. She is also a former editor of International Piano (2011-15) and Muso (2008-11), an alternative classical music magazine that was distributed throughout conservatoires in the UK and the US.