A must-watch: Evgeny Kissin, the Russian-born Russian-British-Israeli classical pianist plays Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Op. 23 at the Carnegie Hall Opening Night in New York in 1995. Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Seiji Ozawa. One of the greatest renditions of the work, enjoy.
The concerto is composed between November 1874 and February 1875. It was revised in the summer of 1879 and again in December 1888. The first version received heavy criticism from Nikolai Rubinstein, Tchaikovsky’s desired pianist, who considered the concerto was unplayable. Rubinstein later repudiated his previous accusations and became a fervent champion of the work. It is one of the most popular of Tchaikovsky’s compositions and among the best known of all piano concertos.
The work is scored for two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets in B-flat, two bassoons, four horns in F, two trumpets in F, three trombones (two tenor, one bass), timpani, solo piano, and strings.
The concerto follows the traditional form of three movements:
- Allegro non troppo e molto maestoso – Allegro con spirito (B flat minor → B flat major)
- Andantino semplice – Allegro vivace assai/Prestissimo (D flat major)
- Allegro con fuoco (B flat minor → B flat major)
The concerto’s first theme, which follows the famous introduction, is based on a melody that Tchaikovsky heard performed by blind beggar-musicians at a market in Kamenka (near Kiev), is notable for its apparent formal independence from the rest of the movement and from the concerto as a whole, especially given its setting not in the work’s nominal key of B-flat minor but rather in D-flat major, that key’s relative major. Despite its very substantial nature, this first theme is only heard twice, and it never reappears at any later point in the concerto.
Russian music historian Francis Maes writes that because of its independence from the rest of the work,
“[f]or a long time, the introduction posed an enigma to analysts and critics alike.…The key to the link between the introduction and what follows is…Tchaikovsky’s gift of hiding motivic connections behind what appears to be a flash of melodic inspiration. The opening melody comprises the most important motivic core elements for the entire work, something that is not immediately obvious, owing to its lyric quality. However, a closer analysis shows that the themes of the three movements are subtly linked. Tchaikovsky presents his structural material in a spontaneous, lyrical manner, yet with a high degree of planning and calculation.”
Maes continues by mentioning that all the themes are tied together by a strong motivic link. These themes include the Ukrainian folk song “Oy, kryatshe, kryatshe…” as the first theme of the first movement proper, the French chansonette, “Il faut s’amuser, danser et rire.” (Translated as: One must have fun, dance and laugh) in the middle section of the second movement and a Ukrainian vsnyanka or greeting to spring which appears as the first theme of the finale; the second theme of the finale is motivically derived from the Russian folk song “Podoydi, podoydi vo Tsar-Gorod” and also shares this motivic bond. The relationship between them has often been ascribed to chance because they were all well-known songs at the time Tchaikovsky composed the concerto. It seems likely, though, that he used these songs precisely because of their motivic connection and used them where he felt necessary. “Selecting folkloristic material,” Maes writes, “went hand in hand with planning the large-scale structure of the work.”
The title cut from Pink Martini’s 2009 album Splendor in the Grass employs the famous theme from the first movement.
Evgeny Igorevitch Kissin (Yevgeniy Igorevich Kisin; born 10 October 1971) is a Russian–British–Israeli classical pianist. He first came to international fame as a child prodigy. He has been a British citizen since 2002 and an Israeli citizen since 2013. He has a wide repertoire and is especially known for his interpretations of the works of the Romantic era, particularly those of Frédéric Chopin, Sergei Rachmaninoff and Franz Liszt. He is commonly viewed as a great successor of the Russian piano school because of his virtuosity and powerful key touch.
Many musical awards and tributes from around the world have been showered upon Kissin. In 1987 he received the Crystal Prize of the Osaka Symphony Hall for the best performance of the year 1986 (his first performance in Japan). In 1991 he received the Musician of the Year Prize from the Chigiana Academy of Music in Siena, Italy. He was special guest at the 1992 Grammy Awards Ceremony, broadcast live to an audience estimated at over one billion, and became Musical America’s youngest Instrumentalist of the Year in 1995. In 1997 he received the prestigious Triumph Award for his outstanding contribution to Russia’s culture, one of the highest cultural honors to be awarded in the Russian Republic, and again, the youngest-ever awardee. He was the first pianist to be invited to give a recital at the BBC Proms (1997), and, in the 2000 season, was the first concerto soloist ever to be invited to play in the Proms opening concert. In May 2001 Kissin was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Music by the Manhattan School of Music. In December 2003 in Moscow, he received the Shostakovich Award, one of Russia’s highest musical honors. In June 2005 he was awarded an Honorary Membership of the Royal Academy of Music in London. In March 2009 he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Letters from the Hong Kong University.