Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (07.05.1840 – 06.11.1893) was a Russian composer of the romantic period, some of whose works are among the most popular music in the classical repertoire. Particularly noteworthy are his ballets The Nutcracker, Op. 71 and Swan Lake, Op. 20, his Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35, his 1812 Overture, Op. 49 (complete with canon fire!), his Symphonies No. 5 & 6 and his Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor, Op. 23.
Tchaikovsky completed his Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor, Op. 23 in 1874 and he took the work to his friend and mentor, Nikolay Rubinstein on Christmas Eve hoping for some friendly technical advice on the piano part. After Tchaikovsky, who was not a virtuoso pianist, had played through the work Rubinstein got louder and louder in his condemnation describing it as worthless and unplayable! However Rubinstein warmed to the work, conducting its first performance and later learning the piano part so as to become a strong advocate of the piece.
The concerto has a highly unusual introduction beginning with imperious horn calls in B flat major but then swings immediately into D flat major for a great melody that never reappears! The main body of this movement is, in fact, based upon a Ukrainian folk song. The meditative slow movement returns to D flat major and is an inspired example of Tchaikovsky at his most melodic. The final movement brings the piece vigorously back to B flat minor with a further Ukrainian folk tune, but the mainstay of the movement is the surging second theme to which this concerto owes its enormous popularity.
For our recommendation we have turned to Martha Argerich’s third recording of this work. This comes from a live performance in the the Grand Hall (Großer Saal) of the Berliner Philharmonie, Berlin in December 1994 which, in our view, surpasses those earlier, legendary performances. She is accompanied by the Berliner Philharmoniker who are conducted by Claudio Abbado. Russians may like to claim this concerto as their own (rather like the English with Elgar’s Cello Concerto) but even they would surely be impressed by Argerich’s performance where she is as one with her piano giving a performance of true brilliance and vitality. As a bonus, Deutsche Grammophon have given us an encore in the form of an earlier performance of The Nutcracker where she’s partnered by Nicolas Economou in his own arrangement of this famous ballet music.