Triumph! The fanfare at the beginning of this piece is a statement in itself. Here comes a composer who is not afraid of pushing the envelope. A piano concert with a first movement lasting 20 minutes? 688 bars? Well… A second movement written in the form of a triple concerto with a constant dialogue of the piano, the violin and the cello? He who dares wins. Harmonies in abundance, alternating with harmonic experiments? To hell with the critics! By now you should have guessed that we are speaking about Pyotr Tchaikovsky. What a man! What a composition!
Overcoming a trauma
Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Major, op. 44. Tchaikovsky composed it in 1879 for his teacher and friend Nikolai Rubinstein. “I shall work without haste, without forcing the matter and without exhausting myself”, he informed his patron, Nadezhda von Meck. He knew why. He had to succeed.
Rubinstein had heavily criticized Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto (op. 23) which had provoked a serious row between the two. Rubinstein had argued that several parts would have to be rewritten and Tchaikovsky was adamant: He would not change a single note! Rubinstein later changed his mind and played the piece with utmost brilliance. And now the composer had set out to write a second piano concerto, dedicated to Rubinstein, to erase that painfully memory of the drama surrounding Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto.
Suggested and agreed changes
Unfortunately Rubinstein died in March 1881 before the piece’s premiere and it was Tchaikovsky’s student Sergei Tanayev who played the solo part at the first performance of the concerto on the May 18, 1882 in Moscow, not without complaining about the length of the cadence in the first movement. In 1887, Tanayev suggested a few changes which Tchaikovsky accepted, in 1888, the pianist Alexander Skiloti proposed a few more, which Tchaikovsky initially ignored – until shortly before his death, when he agreed to some, not all! The road to triumph is sometimes long and stony.
This piece will last. I heard it once live, in 2014 in Luxembourg, performed by the Orchestre Philharmonique de Luxembourg and Nikolai Lugansky at the piano. What an experience! Beautiful, exhausting, exciting, inspiring, frightening, transcendent… I am running out of adjectives here. I have a recording by the Philharmonia Orchestra and Mikhail Pletnev at the piano and I can listen to this again and again.
© Charles Thibo