Piotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky’s The Three Piano Concertos; Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition; Mily Balakirev’s Islamey

graffman-russiansPiotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky seems to have made a habit of writing concertos that were condemned as “unplayable” and then took their places near the top of the roster in the romantic canon. Like his Violin Concerto, Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto in B-flat Major, composed for his mentor and sponsor Nikolai Rubenstein, brother of the great Anton Rubenstein, was condemned by the intended soloist, using the “U” word; it was finally premiered in 1875 in Boston with the eminent conductor and pianist Hans von Bülow as soloist. (And remember that the musical world of the nineteenth century was a small one: this was the same Hans von Bülow who was one of Wagner’s champions as well as Tchaikovsky’s, although in the former case the conductor probably had cause to regret it: Wagner ran off with his wife, Cosima, daughter of Franz Liszt.) The premiere was, depending on your source, either wildly successful or a near-riot (in Boston, no less!). Rubenstein did eventually play the concerto all over Europe, with great success. (This is also the work with which American pianist Van Cliburn won the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1958, itself an amazing occurrence.)

Even if you don’t think you’ve ever heard this work, trust me — within the first eight bars you will recognize it. The majestic opening, comprised of fistfuls of chords on the piano over a lyrical orchestral accompaniment is one of the most immediately recognizable pieces of music in the world. One thing that struck me listening this time was that Tchaikovsky did what Brahms had done in his Piano Concerto in D Minor: this is much more the “symphony with piano” than the classical and early romantic concert piece with the orchestra as a definitely secondary element. Listening to this concerto is going to rearrange some thinking among those who think of Tchaikovsky in terms of “sugarplum fairies” and not much more. It’s a terrifically muscular piece of writing, demanding of the performer not only speed and accuracy but the ability at times to override the full orchestra.

The same sense of the concerto as a symphonic work is evident in Concerto in G, which Tchiakovsky wrote for Rubenstein as well. The pianist died before the scheduled premiere, and the work made its debut, once again, in the United States, this time in New York. This is a more ambitious work than the Concerto No.1, and seemingly almost as demanding to perform.

The Piano Concerto No. 3 in E-flat was unfinished at Tchaikovsky’s death in 1893. The first movement had originally been part of a symphony, but, as is so often the case, the material re-emerged as a concerto. The second and third movements were mere sketches at his death. (This is one of those things that happens in music: Tchaikovsky’s pupil Sergei Taneyev, who premiered the single-movement concerto, Op. 75, also completed and orchestrated the two remaining movements, which were eventually published as part of the “complete” concerto, Op. 79. The version presented on this disc is the single-movement form.) This is a “condensed” version of Tchaikovsky’s musical thinking in many ways. All the lyricism is there, along with that orchestral color that seems so much a part of Russian music in general. There is also a density that the Third Concerto shares with the Second, and I think it’s something that is a product of the “new” concept of the concerto: there is a difference in the textures and in the weight of the composition as a whole in both these works that I think parallels that in both Tchaikovsky’s First and Brahms’ Concerto in D Minor. There are also passages that are tricky in the extreme, which Graffman negotiates without even coming close to a stumble, which is something that holds true throughout this recording. I remember Graffman as a solid and intelligent interpreter, but there are flashes of fire here that remind us that we are, indeed, dealing with one of the greatest Russian composers.

In fact, the performances are exceptional throughout. George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra would not be the first ensemble I would think of for Tchaikovsky — for me, that will always be the nearly ideal Mozart/Beethoven combination — but the Piano Concerto No. 1 benefits immensely from their legendary clarity and precision. If I were going to pick an American orchestra for Tchaikovsky, the Philadelphia Orchestra under Ormandy would be in the top two or three — make that two. Their lush sound brings out another aspect of Tchaikovsky’s writing, displaying all the orchestral color while losing none of the weight.

Modest Mussorgky’s Pictures at an Exhibition was, indeed, based on pictures he saw at an exhibition of the work of his friend Viktor Hartmann, a renowned architect, painter and stage designer. The work was intended as a memorial to Hartmann, who had died in his thirties. Although we are most familiar with the many orchestrated versions (Rimsky-Korsakoff was the first to do one; it’s a toss-up between his and Ravel’s as far as I’m concerned), the work was intended as a suite for solo piano. Graffman’s performance brings out all the color and shows as well the strength of Mussorgsky’s writing: what we so often encounter as a somewhat impressionistic tone-poem turns out to be a tightly conceived and executed suite with no fuzzy edges at all. I admit it — I love the solo piano version and always have, but Graffman’s rendering gives me goosebumps.

Mily Balakirev is better known as an activist than a composer, being one of the members of “The Five,” that group of Russian nationalist composers who managed to produce a kind of music that was distinctly Russian within the broad dimensions of nineteenth European romanticism as a whole. Islamey is another work that is probably better known as an orchestral fantasy, but it is a strong piano piece. It doesn’t carry the weight of the other offerings in this group, but it is definitely a virtuoso piece and shows of Graffman’s mastery beautifully.

This is, when all is said and done, Gary Graffman’s show. It’s lucky for us that it was created from so many important Russian works in the piano repertoire. Definitely one for our basic library.

(Sony BMG Music Entertainment, 2005)

About Robert Tilendis

Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there.

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