Accompanied by the Orchestre de Paris, Georgian classical pianist Khatia Buniatishvili performs Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Op. 23. Conductor: Klaus Makela. Recorded at Philharmonie de Paris in 2022.
Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1
The concerto follows the traditional form of three movements:
- Allegro non troppo e molto maestoso – Allegro con spirito (B flat minor – B flat major).
- The first movement starts with a short horn theme in B-flat minor, accompanied by orchestral chords that quickly modulate to the lyrical and passionate theme in D-flat major. This subsidiary theme is heard three times, the last of which is preceded by a piano cadenza, and never appears again throughout the movement. The introduction ends in a subdued manner. The exposition proper then begins in the concerto’s tonic minor key, with a Ukrainian folk theme based on a melody that Tchaikovsky heard performed by blind lirnyks at a market in Kamianka (near Kyiv). A short transitional passage is a call-and-response section on the tutti and the piano, alternating between high and low registers. The second subject group consists of two alternating themes, the first of which features some of the melodic contours from the introduction. This is answered by a smoother and more consoling second theme, played by the strings and set in the subtonic key (A-flat major) over a pedal point, before a more turbulent reappearance of the woodwind theme, this time reinforced by driving piano arpeggios gradually builds to a stormy climax in C minor that ends in a perfect cadence on the piano. After a short pause, a closing section, based on a variation of the consoling theme, closes the exposition in A-flat major.
- The development section transforms this theme into an ominously building sequence, punctuated with snatches of the first subject material. After a flurry of piano octaves, fragments of the “plaintive” theme are revisited for the first time in E♭ major, then for the second time in G minor. Then the piano and the strings take turns playing the theme for the third time in E major while the timpani furtively plays a tremolo on a low B until the first subject’s fragments are continued.
- The recapitulation features an abridged version of the first subject, working around to C minor for the transition section. In the second subject group, the consoling second theme is omitted; instead the first theme repeats, with a reappearance of the stormy climactic build previously heard in the exposition, but this time in B♭ major. The excitement is cut short by a deceptive cadence. A brief closing section comprises G-flat major chords played by the whole orchestra and the piano. Then a piano cadenza appears, the second half of which contains subdued snatches of the second subject group’s first theme in the work’s original minor key. B♭ major is restored in the coda when the orchestra reenters with the second subject group’s second theme; the tension then gradually builds, leading to a triumphant conclusion, ending with a plagal cadence.
- Andantino semplice – Allegro vivace assai/Prestissimo (D-flat major). After a brief pizzicato introduction, the flute carries the theme’s first statement. The flute’s opening four notes are A-flat-E-flat-F-A-flat, while each other statement of this motif in the remainder of the movement substitutes the F for a (higher) B-flat. The British pianist Stephen Hough suggests this may be an error in the published score, and that the flute should play a B-flat. After the flute’s opening statement of the melody, the piano continues and modulates to F major. After a bridge section, two cellos return with the theme in D-flat major and the oboe continues it. The A section ends with the piano holding a high F major chord, pianissimo. The movement’s B section is in D minor (the relative minor of F major) and marked “allegro vivace assai” or “prestissimo”, depending on the edition. It commences with a virtuosic piano introduction before the piano assumes an accompanying role and the strings commence a new melody in D major. The B section ends with another virtuosic solo piano passage, leading into the return of the A section. In return, the piano makes the first, now ornamented, statement of the theme. The oboe continues the theme, this time resolving it to the tonic (D-flat major) and setting up a brief coda that finishes ppp on another plagal cadence.
- Allegro con fuoco (B flat minor – B flat major). The finale of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in rondo form, starts with a very brief introduction.
- The A theme, in B-flat minor, is march-like and upbeat. This melody is played by the piano until the orchestra plays a variation of it ff. The B theme, in D♭ major, is more lyrical and the melody is first played by the violins, and by the piano second. A set of descending scales leads to the abridged version of the A theme.
- The C theme is heard afterward, modulating through various keys, containing dotted rhythm, and a piano solo leads to:
- The later measures of the A section are heard, and then the B appears, this time in E-flat major. Another set of descending scales leads to the A once more. This time, it ends with a half cadence on a secondary dominant, in which the coda starts. An urgent buildup leads to a sudden crash with F major octaves as a transition point to the last B-flat major melody played along with the orchestra, and it fuses into a dramatic and extended climactic episode, gradually building to a dominant prolongation. Then the melodies from the B theme are heard in B-flat major. After that, the final part of the coda, marked allegro vivo, draws the work to a conclusion on a perfect authentic cadence.
The title cut from Pink Martini’s 2009 album Splendor in the Grass employs the famous theme from the first movement.
- Piano Concerto No. 1 (Tchaikovsky) on Wikipedia