17 February 2023

P.R. Jenkins

Spotlight Tchaikovsky: The piano concerto No.1

Tchaikovsky’s piano concerto No.1 in B flat minor is arguably the most popular solo concerto of all. The triumphant introduction is one of the famous beginnings in classical music and there is no important Russian pianist who does not have this concerto in his repertoire.

But success was a long way off in 1875, when Tchaikovsky had finished his op 23. His friend and mentor, the great pianist and conductor Nikolai Rubinstein was aghast at the piece and suggested throwing it away or to revising it completely. Tchaikovsky did neither but sent it to the Wagner conductor Hans von Bülow, who was enthusiastic about it and rehearsed it for his imminent America tour. The first performance of this all-Russian concert with its Ukrainian folk songs was in Boston in October 1875. Four months before, Bülow had written to Tchaikovsky: “This is a real gem and you deserve the gratitude of all pianists.” Rubinstein changed his mind, later studied the work and became one of its great exponents.

(Ten years later it was the other way round. The young Richard Strauss proposed his “Burleske” to Bülow who rejected it as “unplayable”. After its first performance with Eugen d’Albert, Bülow considered it to be “ingenious” but also “threatening”.)

Karajan and Lazar Berman, recording the Tchaikovsky concerto in 1975


Karajan performed the Tchaikovsky piano concerto regularly between 1931 and 1989 and he made several recordings of it with Sviatoslav Richter, Alexis Weissenberg, Lazar Berman and Evgeny Kissin. He also performed it in concert with Shura Cherkassky and Mark Zeltser. Two fascinating collaborations unfortunately didn’t happen. After Karajan’s and Lipatti’s Schumann recording in 1948, Walter Legge planned to record the Tchaikovsky with them and produce a record “that should be on the best-seller list for ten years”. But Lipatti was already ill and died two years later. The other occasion was with Ivo Pogorelich in 1984. Richard Osborne witnessed: “During a rehearsal in the Musikverein, Karajan uncharacteristically ran out of patience. There were heated exchanges. Karajan got off the rostrum and hammered out the rhythm on the piano lid. At the end of the rehearsal, he announced: ‘Tomorrow evening we play Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6.’ Decoded, this meant, ‘The concerto is cancelled.’”

We’ve prepared playlists with Karajan’s studio recordings of Tchaikovsky’s piano concerto No.1. Listen to them here.

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