“I shall not alter a single note”

March 9 2015

Kirill Gerstein on Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto – what a masterpiece it is – first performed 140 years ago, whose “famous opening chords are not, in fact, what Tchaikovsky wrote at all”.

The balance between piano and orchestra at the opening is certainly problematic in many performances.

The New York Review of Books, March 9 (a few weeks before the 175th anniversary of Tchaikovsky’s birth), with four audio samples.

This summary is taken mainly from Gerstein’s piece and from wiki.tchaikovsky-research.net. Links are mine.

At the end of 1874, Tchaikovsky showed a final draft of the first version of the concerto to Nikolai Rubinstein. He wanted advice on the playability and effectiveness of the piano writing. Rubinstein was scathing about both. Tchaikovsky described this occasion in a letter to Nadezhda von Meck (date?). At the end of the meeting, Tchaikovsky wrote, Rubinstein said

that if within a limited time I reworked the concerto according to his demands, then he would do me the honour of playing my piece at his concert. “I shall not alter a single note,” I answered, “I shall publish the work exactly as it is!” This I did.

Tchaikovsky completed this version in February 1875 and dedicated the concerto to Hans von Bülow, who premiered it in Boston that October. “There is such unsurpassed originality, such nobility, such strength, and there are so many arresting moments throughout this unique conception; there is such a maturity of form, such style – its design and execution, with such consonant harmonies, that I could weary you by listing all the memorable moments which caused me to thank the author – not to mention the pleasure from performing it all. In a word, this true gem shall earn you the gratitude of all pianists.”

The nineteen-year old Sergey Taneyev gave the first performance in Moscow in December, with a now less doubtful Rubinstein on the podium.

Pyotr Jurgenson published an arrangement for two pianos in May 1875, the orchestral parts in October 1875, and the full score not until August 1879, when it included revisions by Tchaikovsky to the piano part in the first movement.

From then on, it was the 1879 version that Tchaikovsky conducted, up to and including a performance in St Petersburg on October 28 1893, days before his death.

A new edition “reviewed and corrected by the author” was published in late 1889 or early 1890 by Daniel Rahter in Leipzig. A further version was published in 1894 by Jurgenson in Moscow. I assume it was based on Rahter.

This is what we hear now. It is impossible to know for certain who is responsible for the changes in this posthumous version, but the name of Alexander Siloti, a student of Tchaikovsky’s, is often mentioned.

Buy Gerstein’s premiere recording of the 1879 version here. Is it possible now to play the 1875 version, ie the score before Tchaikovsky abandoned his decision not to alter a single note?

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