Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Concerto Guide: Tchaikovsky, Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor

The Piano Concerto No. 1 by Tchaikovsky was completed in 1875, though it underwent some revisions later on. A recent recording of it returns to the original version, but we usually hear the revised one. If you recall, the 18th century concerto always began with the orchestra stating the main theme with the entry of the soloist delayed until this was complete. Mozart broke with this on occasion, having the solo piano interrupt the orchestra, and Beethoven began a couple of concertos with the piano soloist. But it was Robert Schumann who laid out a new model for the Romantic concerto, giving the orchestra a single chord and having the solo piano present the opening theme. A number of composers we have looked at, including Grieg and Liszt, used this kind of opening while Brahms returned to the earlier format of delaying the entry of the soloist.

Tchaikovsky, in his first piano concerto, does something different. As the piano is now so powerful an instrument, both physically and culturally, it no longer has to assert itself so starkly. In an interesting turnabout, the orchestra is given the opening theme, but the piano accompanies them, all of them, with a huge chordal figure before taking over the theme itself. Here is how that looks:

After a brief four-measure introduction in the brass, the melody is given to the first violins and cellos--one of Tchaikovsky's great tunes. But this unusual effect, a single instrument accompanying a whole, large orchestra with huge arpeggiated chords (arpeggiated in large clumps, mind you) is a unique effect and makes for a powerful beginning. Then, as I said, the piano takes over the theme:

The Wikipedia article on the concerto says that "One of the most prominent differences between the original and final versions is that in the opening section, the octave chords played by the pianist, over which the orchestra plays the famous theme, were originally written as arpeggios." But didn't I just say that this version, the revised one, has huge arpeggiated chords at the beginning? Of course, there are lots of different kinds of arpeggios. The term is derived from the Italian word for harp, who typically has these kinds of textures:

This example is for piano, but harp arpeggios look just the same. However, to a theorist, prolonging a harmony by spreading it out in different octaves is also an arpeggiation and I was using the word in that sense. Playing the notes of a B-flat minor chord individually, as on a harp or guitar, or in solid groups of six or seven notes, and extending this harmony over one or more octaves for several measures is an arpeggiation to a theorist. Performers think of it differently, though and contrast what they call arpeggios with "solid chords", which is what the piano is playing here. This is because, to a performer, they present different problems of execution. Theorists aren't interested in execution, but they are interested in what the listener hears.

Even from the very first performance, in Boston in 1875 with Hans von Bülow as soloist, the work was a big success. At the premiere, the audience response was so enthusiastic that they had to repeat the finale! I witnessed a response like this myself on one occasion. In Toronto in the late 1970s, John Williams premiered a guitar concerto by Leo Brouwer with the composer conducting and the audience, composed largely of guitarists attending a festival, were ecstatic and delivered a five minute standing ovation. Finally, after having returned to the stage often enough to have shaken the hand of every single member of the orchestra, Williams and Brouwer decided to play the slow movement again. So yes, these things happen. Just not very often!

Without going into further analysis of the piece (for a non-technical one you might look here), let's listen to it. Here is a classic performance with a young Martha Argerich and Charles Dutoit conducting the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande in 1975:


Anonymous said...

I've always regarded this concerto as a failure. There are so many issues with it. The opening has the cheesy quality of an Ennio Morricone or Nino Rota tune. Much of it is incoherent. Worst of all, the piano is miscast. It's struggling so hard to transcend its limitations by sounding "orchestral." Everyone is struggling too hard. Mozart and Bach give you the impression they took dictation from God. Here is a composer who seems to have sweating out every bar!

It's popular, I think, because it's easy-listening, like pop music, and it has this heroic quality due to its instrumental miscast.

Bryan Townsend said...

Not sure what you mean by incoherent, but there are themes that appear briefly and then disappear (as I recall, sometimes this happens with Mozart too), but there are also theorists who assert that there are subtle motivic connections that link the apparently disparate themes of the concerto. My impression is that the first movement does not hang together very well, but it has some appealing--and immediately accessible--bits that help to explain its popularity. Part of this popularity may be due to the concerto sounding just what people expect a romantic piano concerto to sound like. Some of the Concierto de Aranjuez's popularity is due to the fact that it sounds exactly like what people expect a guitar concerto to sound like (only a bit better).

Anonymous said...

I think you nailed it. It's a lovely piece that's easy on the ear and matches people's expectations of something very romantic ought to be.

By incoherent, I mean the striking opening creates a mood, which is then quickly abandoned. My sense is that Beethoven would want to tie up all these loose parts.

Also, the piano loses all musicality. It's essentially a percussive instrument. Too much effort, too much sweat, too much struggle. Compare this with the effortless way in which Wagner creates monstrous tension: the difference between an excellent composer (Tchaikovsky) and a genius (Wagner).

Anyway thanks for the post. I love your analyses.

Bryan Townsend said...

Oh yes, I see what you mean. I think that, with the possible exception of Brahms, no 19th century composer of concertos was able to achieve the structural unity and focused drive that Beethoven did. Nor the sheer elegance and charm that Mozart achieved in his concertos. The 19th century very much struggled with how to organize large-scale instrumental music.


Rickard Dahl said...

Popularity isn't necessarily a bad thing. If a piece is good/great/excellent or whatever then it's simply good/great/excellent. Anyways, I didn't think about the "problems" until Anonymous pointed them out. I think the theme/s in the first movement are not well developed and instead there is a lot of virtuosic filler (at least that's my impression if we're looking for problems). The theme itself (the one at the beginning) is great though but it could get more attention/development. I think the second movement is better and the third movement is the best movement.

I don't remember the other Tchaikovsky concertos completely (listened to them a few weeks ago and I'm not so familiar with them other than that) but I suspect that they are better than this one. As for genius, it depends on how it's defined. Tchaikovsky was a musical genius but maybe not as genius as Wagner (although I certainly prefer Tchaikovsky rather than Wagner).

Bryan Townsend said...

Next week I am going to do the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, which will be a good opportunity to delve into these questions more deeply.