Monday 6 April 2015

Schumanesque transformation - Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto, new light from a new edition

Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 1879 version, Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 2; Gerstein, Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, Gaffigan; Myrios
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Mar 28 2015
Star rating: 4.0

A first outing for the new edition of Tchaikovsky's own edition of the famous concerto

It wasn't unusual in the 19th century for the solo part in a concerto to be edited to a certain extent by the virtuoso for whom it was written (Brahms's friend Joachim provided advice for the violin concerto Brahms was writing). But Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto was premiered in 1875 by Hans von Bulow, who was enthusiastic about the piece and it had its first Russian performance that year with Nikolai Rubinstein (who had been initially dismissive of the work) conducting Sergey Taneev. Shortly after this, Tchaikovsky made some revisions and this version was printed by his publisher P.Jurgenson in 1879. This was the version that Tchaikovsky performed for most of his life. But in 1894, after Tchaikovsky's death a third edition was produced and printed, and it is this version which is has traditionally become known as Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto.

It is not certain who edited the concerto for the 1894 edition, but it seems to have been Tchaikovsky's pupil Alexander Siloti, who claimed in a 1929 interview to have spoken to the composer about the revisions, notably the changes to the famous chords in the opening piano sequence. As I have said, changes to concertos by virtuoso was relatively commonplace, and the early printings of the score from 1879 were rare, so it is the 1894 edition which became accepted. There is no documentary evidence for the changes, they just appear in 1894 out of nowhere, and by contrast in 1912 Sergey Taneev (who not only played it but helped in the preparation and copying of the score) expressed disbelief.

Perhaps the reason for the popularly of the 1894 edition is the character change which Siloti's edition has wrought on the work, because in the famous opening Tchaikovsky did not write chords but arpeggiated passages, and this has a general effect on dynamics and general feel. What Tchaikovsky wrote is subtler, and far less combative, and much more Schumanesque. Siloti's changes have moved the concerto a little closer to the combative model of concerto rather beloved of the 19th century composers (piano v. orchestra) whilst Tchaikovsky has written something richer and more poetic.

Kirill Gerstein - photo Marco Borggreve
Kirill Gerstein - photo Marco Borggreve
Now a new edition critical edition of the 1879 score has been produced which allows us to hear it, including the original opening and a reversing of all the other little cuts and alterations (the range of the final restatement of the finale's secondary theme is changed and there is a cut in the development of the third movement). In fact the new edition from the Tchaikovsky Museum and Archive includes both the 1875 and 1879 editions, so we have the possibility of hearing the very first version.

The first recording of the new edition has been made by pianist Kirill Gerstein with James Gaffigan conducting the Deutches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin. Gerstein and Gaffigan couple Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto no. 1, Op.23 (CW53) in its 1879 version, with Sergey Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op 16 on the Myrios Classics label.

The performance is capable and fascinating. The biggest change that everyone will hear is the opening, with the heavy chords now spread and the resulting texture rather lighter and less insistent, less bombastic. This is reflected in the whole concerto, and to a certain extent I think that Gerstein and Gaffigan's performance has involved a re-thinking of the concerto, a process that will be on-going. If the opening is less bombastic, then what follows must inevitably change and the extra notes help this. The result has the potential to be richly rewarding.

However I think that Gerstein and Gaffigan have gone a little too far and the result has a feeling of cool efficiency, in fact the general tenor of the concerto rather matches their performance of Prokofiev's work. And for me, they miss the feel of a great romantic concerto, and time and again Gerstein does not seem to want to give us richly shaped melodies, recognising that he is playing some of the greatest melodies, and that the work is still a major romantic concerto, more so in this edition perhaps. What we have is something which has a certain cool distance. For me the performance is admirable rather than loveable. Though Gerstein and Gaffigan have got in first, I am sure that others will come after in other interpretations. And, of  course, now that we have the correct score what it would be lovely to hear would be a period instrument version. I would really like to know how the changed balance works with a late 19th century piano, gut strings and narrow bore wind.

Don't expect this new edition to suddenly appear everywhere, after all it will require pianist to learn it and conductors to champion it. It will also require performing groups to acquire new, expensive in copyright, copies of a work which is generally out of copyright. It will probably take a couple of major pianists championing it, so watch this space.

Gerstein and Gaffigan's approach reaps rich rewards in the Prokofiev, and if their performance of the big name work in the disc is only in the interesting, their account of the coupling is white hot. This is simply a terrific performance of Prokofiev's concerto and it makes the disc well worth acquiring. Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 2 was written in 1913, and arose partly out of his studying of previous Russian piano concertos arising because his first concerto had been criticised for its superficial brilliance.

So here Prokofiev combines real power with a heightened sense of emotion, and Gerstein and Gaffigan really bring this out. Hear we really do feel the sense and power of the work, and Gerstein gives the feeling of having performed the piece white hot in one sitting.

Gerstein's own article in the CD booklet is wonderfully full of detail about both concertos, and clearly Gerstein has taken a real musicological interest in the problems with editions of the Tchaikovsky.

Piotry Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) - Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor, Op.23 (CW53) 1879 edition (1875/79) [34.04]
Sergei Sergeyevich Prokofiev (1891-1953) - Piano Concerto No.2 in G minor, Op.16 (1913/1923) [31.36]
Kirill Gerstein (piano)
Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin
James Gaffigan (conductor)
Elsewhere on this blog:

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