Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto: Jan 12-14 Program Notes
One of Tchaikovsky’s best known works and among the most famous in all of classical music, the First Piano Concerto is a deeply expressive and romantic tour de force. Gold Medal winner of the 2009 Van Cliburn Competition, Haochen Zhang performs this great masterwork.
Prokofiev’s Fifth is one of the great orchestral works of the 20th century. Written during the dark days of World War II, Prokofiev intended his Fifth to be "a hymn to free and happy Man, to his mighty powers, his pure and noble spirit."
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CARL ST.CLAIR • CONDUCTOR
HAOCHEN ZHANG • PIANO
Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 23, TH 55
Allegro non troppo e molto maestoso Andantino semplice
Allegro con fuoco
I N T E R M I S S I O N
Serge Prokofiev (1891-1953)
Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major, Op. 100
Allegro moderato Adagio
The 2016–17 Piano Soloists are sponsored by The Michelle F. Rohé Distinguished Pianists' Fund.
The Thursday night concert is generously sponsored by Ellie and Mike Gordon.
Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) Author unknown.
Preview talk with Alan Chapman
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, 1874. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (file no. LC-USZ62-128254)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor
Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 - 1893)
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, bass trombone, timpani, strings
Performance time: 32 minutes
Trained as a pianist as well as a composer, Tchaikovsky was born into the great age of virtuosic concerto composition—the Romantic era of classical music—and his spectacular Concerto No. 1 for Piano and Orchestra is one of the staples of the genre.
Concertos had been written for centuries, but Beethoven (born 1770) had raised the stakes; by 1875, when Tchaikovsky was 35 and was composing his Piano Concerto No. 1, pianos and piano concertos had grown in size. Composers followed Beethoven’s lead, relishing the chance to create large-scaled, serious concertos of spectacular difficulty.
More than just popular hits, they also expressed a basic principle of the Romantic age: the individual’s struggle against opposition, the one versus the many. But they were also vehicles for sheer spectacle and elevated the soloist to a sort of cult-virtuoso status. Often seemingly unplayable, they helped make Paganini and Liszt into musical superstars.
Oddly, “unplayable” turns out to be a fateful word in the performance history of concertos by the hapless Tchaikovsky, who lacked both luck and self-confidence. The concerto literature is rife with works that are now popular, their greatness undisputed, that were condemned by critics and soloists back in the day. Most often, they were described as having been written “against the instrument” or as technically unplayable.
Were soloists hedging their bets? It’s hard to know; playing the unplayable was right on their calling card. Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and the Violin Concerto in D both suffered this characterization, and both are now among the most beloved concertos in the standard repertory.
When it came to the violin, Tchaikovsky was on less-than-familiar ground, and he proceeded with nervous caution after being inspired by Edouard Lalo’s exuberant five-movement concerto. (Tchaikovsky's work with violinists in crafting the score didn’t help ease its way into the world.)
But Tchaikovsky was a respected pianist, and though he lacked the encyclopedic technique of Russia’s foremost soloists, he could be confident of his knowledge of the instrument and how to write for it.
For it he created a concerto in which towering grandeur and poetic utterance are abundant and unmistakable—earmarks of a hit concerto. The melodies are gorgeously lyrical and take advantage of the instrument’s expressive capabilities.
So why did Tchaikovsky’s friend and intended dedicatee for the score, the great pianist Nikolai Rubinstein, dis it as artistically crude and, yes, unplayable? Musicologists are still speculating about the reasons, though after its quick success with the public and critics, Rubinstein changed his mind and praised it effusively.
What to Listen For
We can hear a characteristically Romantic spirit of heroic rebellion in the Concerto No. 1 for Piano and Orchestra. It bursts upon us with an opening that is explosive and iconic: a moment of brassy orchestral fanfare introducing thunderous piano chords grouped in threes. They are played in unison with both hands as they move in bold, multi- octave leaps up the keyboard.
Even if you had never heard this concerto before, this stunningly dramatic, oft-quoted opening would be instantly recognizable. But listen again and notice Tchaikovsky’s remarkable musical calculation here: The piano soloist grabs the primary role, even entering alone. But once the orchestra enters, it has the melody.
Those chords, so full of life and confidence, actually accompany the orchestra’s statement. They can be heard as a heroic response to the melodic lifeline. Once it has been introduced, the piano takes up the melody in a manner that is vigorous but more moderated and less tumultuous, setting up a pattern of alternating grandeur and lyricism that prevails throughout this concerto.
Van Cliburn plays in the third round of Moscow's International Tchaikovsky Competition, which he won in April 1958.
As 21st-century listeners we are the beneficiaries of this concerto’s unusual performance history and the landmark interpretation of the great American pianist Van Cliburn. When Cliburn won the first International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow in 1958 (he was a tall, rangy, young-looking 23), the Cold War was at its height; Sputnik had been launched the previous year, and the space race and the arms race were on.
His victory came with this concerto, and it had an impact we can scarcely imagine now. He received a tickertape parade down Broadway and instantly became an American hero. But the response was even more dramatic in Moscow, where weeping listeners rushed the stage and mobbed him. Why?
In a sense, the answer goes back to the concerto’s duality—the alternation of heroic and poetic sound that Tchaikovsky gives us with unique deftness as he mixes powerful, pounding chords and parallel octaves with rippling passages of rapid fingerwork that require flawless legato. Superbly trained Soviet-era pianists combined accuracy and power. But where was the bold, passionate, dramatic individuality of the Russian pianists of yore?
Under the Soviet system, such highly personalized expressiveness was shunned. But in Cliburn’s performance, the judges heard this kind of interpretive artistry combined with superb technique, and the conclusion was undeniable; listeners heard a cherished part of their national patrimony being restored to them by the unlikeliest of artists.
As we hear tonight, post-Cliburn pianists play this concerto their own way—not his, but always striving to meet a very high and very public standard that has become art of classical music mythology. In soloists such as Haochen Zhang, Gold Medal winner of the 13th International Van Cliburn Competition, we are privileged to hear a modern-day interpreter who is the heir of all these great performance traditions as he puts his personal stamp on one of the great concertos of the piano repertory.
---Van Cliburn - Piano Concerto No. 1 - Final of the 1958 Tchaikovsky Competition (Live Recording)
Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major
Sergei Prokofiev (1891 - 1953)
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, E-flat clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 2 trombones, bass trombone, tuba, timpani, 5 harps, piano, strings
Performance time: 46 minutes
The greatness of Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5 has never been in doubt. But in 1979, with the publication of the book Testimony, a controversy began that has reshaped our view of the relative positions of Russian composers, including Prokofiev's as a symphonist. Though Dmitri Shostakovich is the composer at the center of the controversy surrounding Testimony, Sergei Prokofiev is just outside the eye of the continuing storm.
We now realize that Prokofiev, too, was deeply affected by censorship, composing in the shadow of Soviet cultural regulation. As in Nazi Germany, a breach of stylistic decorum—a bureaucratic judgment that a composition was degenerate in style, or counterproductive to state interests—could cost a career or a life.
When Prokofiev was at conservatory in St. Petersburg, his instructors were the most distinguished pedagogues of the Russian old guard: Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, of course, along with Anatole Liadov, Alexander Glazunov and Alexander Tcherepnin. Accounts of their attitudes toward the young Prokofiev make it clear that he was viewed as a disaffected youth out to make trouble.
He seemed to announce his own brilliance with an early composition: his first symphony. About the last thing the musical community expected from him was a symphony so drenched in traditional symphonic techniques and so full of delectable humor that it could make listeners laugh out loud.
But by the time he composed it, Prokofiev was already 26 and had established his reputation as a rising young composer and a musical intellect who had already survived resistance in the face of modernism. His music was heard as highly percussive, occasionally abrasive and often noisy. The year was 1917, with the horrors of World War I drawing to a close and the Bolshevik Revolution about to shake Russian and World history.
His position in the forefront of modern music conferred prestige on the Soviet Union, and he was allowed to live abroad (mainly in Paris), but the government’s feelings about his reputation were not unmixed.
After completing the first symphony, he traveled extensively in the West and lived as an expatriate from 1918 through the mid-1930s. This kind of cosmopolitanism was always suspicious to Soviet authorities.
Some densely difficult compositions that missed the mark critically, most notably his second symphony and violin concerto, extended his reputation as a bad boy of the avant- garde and his own self-doubts as a composer. But Prokofiev's first symphony was not written as a gesture toward his critics; it showed that the disaffection was actually on the side of his elders, and not his own. His later symphonies, particularly the fifth, would prove him to be one of the greatest of post-Beethoven symphonists.
RIA Novosti archive, image #324 / Boris Kudoyarov / CC-BY-SA 3.0
What to Listen For
Prokofiev composed his fifth symphony more than 25 years after his youthful sojourn in St. Petersburg, in what must have been a burst of inspiration borne of national suffering that is almost impossible for us to imagine now. The year was 1944, and with World War II raging, Prokofiev said he intended the symphony as "a hymn to a free and happy Man, to his mighty powers, his pure and noble spirit."
He composed it as if possessed. "I cannot say that I deliberately chose this theme," he wrote. "It was born in me and clamored for expression. The music matured within me. It filled my soul." The symphony's sound combines Prokofiev's gift for dramatic narrative with a sense of gathering heroism punctuated by humor and even satire, along with lyricism and even tragedy—everything, seemingly, is here, yet nothing is random.
Small wonder this work is recognized as one of the great symphonic outcries of the 20th century, an expression that both embodies the greatness of the human spirit and expresses its deepest longings.
---Yannick Nézet-Séguin conductor, Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, London, PROMS 2013
Music begins at 4:57
Michael Clive is a cultural reporter living in the Litchfield Hills of Connecticut. He is program annotator for Pacific Symphony and Louisiana Philharmonic, and editor-in- chief for The Santa Fe Opera.
To learn more about tonight's guest artist, Haochen Zhang, please click here.
To learn more about Music Director Carl St.Clair, please click here.