Again, I am immensely grateful to the French Tchaikovsky scholar, Gerard Pellerin, for making this outstanding contribution to the site. Here, he discusses the many versions available today, right from the first performance to present-day recordings.
I would just add a personal note: the second movement (or slow movement) of this piece is one of Tchaikovsky’s most beautiful creations. It sounds (or should sound!) like a triple concerto for violin, cello and piano. Although the first version is much harder to get hold of, it is well worth the effort and I think Steven Hough’s CD (identifed in the article about the 1st concerto) is admirable.
I stress again that this article is the work of Gerard Pellerin. I have made very minor surgical incisions to the puntuation only when clarity is threatened.
Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto is one of the most beloved and oft-performed of the whole literature. Its success is due to the irresistible melodic appeal, coupled with a real sense for drama and virtuosity that Tchaikovsky brilliantly accomplished despite his lack of experience as a performer. However, Tchaikovsky wrote two other piano concertos and the Concert Fantasia which are, in my opinion, unjustly neglected, especially the sumptuous Second Piano Concerto, different in mood and shape from the First (though there are some similarities) but worth listening to.
Tchaikovsky wrote his Second Piano Concerto, in G major Opus 44, specifically with Nikolai Rubinstein in mind. By 1879 the First Piano Concerto was becoming increasingly popular. Nikolai Rubinstein had likewise made amends with the composer (after his initial harsh criticism) by learning and performing the work, which added to its popularity. Tchaikovsky felt compelled to reciprocate. He started composing a new piano concerto in October while staying with his sister in Kamenka. He wrote to his patroness, Nadezhda von Meck, “I have begun to compose a piano concerto. I will work without hurrying, straining, or tiring myself in any way. I want to dedicate it to N. G. Rubinstein in recognition of his magnificent playing of my First Concerto and of my Sonata, which left me in utter rapture after he performed it for me in Moscow.”
By the following March, Tchaikovsky had completed the concerto and orchestrated it. Still, he was concerned about Rubinstein’s reaction (his earlier experience with the First Piano Concerto was most certainly in his mind). Writing again to Mme von Meck, “I tremble at the thought of the criticisms I may again hear from Nikolai Grigoryevich, to whom this concerto is dedicated. Still, even if once more he does criticise yet nevertheless goes on to perform it brilliantly as with the First Concerto, I won’t mind. It would be nice, though, if on this occasion the period between the criticism and the performance were shorter. In the meantime I am very pleased and self-satisfied about this concerto, but what lies ahead…I cannot say.”
This time the response was more benevolent. In a letter to his publisher Pyotr Jurgenson, dated August 12, 1880, Tchaikovsky wrote: “In the spring I sent Rubinstein the concerto and asked him to give me his comments after he had played it and to let Taneyev change as many details of the piano part as he wished without touching the essentials of which, no matter how much I was advised, I would not change a single bar. Taneyev wrote and told me that there was absolutely nothing to be changed. In other words, this was Rubinstein’s opinion, so now we only have to wait until he has learned it. When is he going to do this ?”
The composer need not have worried. Rubinstein’s reaction was this time understandably cautious. Rubinstein replied to Tchaikovsky on September 18, 1880: “As to your Concerto, I cannot say anything as yet. I played it through with Taneyev the other day and I would only say that it seemed, at first sight, strange to me that the piano part is so episodic and mostly in dialogue with the orchestra, and not enough in the foreground over the accompaniment of the orchestra. But as I say all this having scarcely played the concerto once through, perhaps I am wrong”.
Tchaikovsky commented to Mme Von Meck in a letter ten days later: “Nikolai Grigorevich has given me his opinion of my concerto that it seems the piano parts too episodic and not sufficiently separated from the orchestra. I think he is wrong. However, he only knows it from a superficial run-through and I hope that on closer acquaintance with it his opinion will alter. In general, Rubinstein tends too often to be unjust in his assessment of a new piece which he has not yet learned. I can think of many cases when he has hurt me deeply with his hostile attitude to some new work or other and then, after a year or two, has radically altered his judgment. I hope that such is the case this time, for if he is right I shall feel very annoyed as I took particular care to make the solo instrument stand out in as much relief as possible from the orchestral background”.
The premiere of the concerto was scheduled in Moscow with Nikolai Rubinstein at the piano, but due to his sudden death on March 11, 1881, this was further delayed. In fact, the Second Concerto received its premiere not in Russia, but in New York City on November 11, 1881, with Madeleine Schiller and conductor Theodore Thomas. The Russian premiere took place on May 18, 1882, in Moscow with Sergei Taneyev at the piano and Nikolai Rubinstein’s brother Anton on the podium.
Taneyev’s opinion of the work was conveyed to Tchaikovsky on June 18, 1882: “Opinions about it are quite diverse, but they all agree that the first and second movements are too long. I have heard comments like this: that it is one of the most beautiful concertos and that in performance it sounds brilliant; but there were also comments on how the First Concerto should be given preference over the second, etc. There are few who approve of the violin and cello solos in the second movement. Instead, people are saying that the piano is superfluous in that movement, and this is something with which I think one cannot but agree: the balance is far too skewed towards these other two instruments. The overall feeling, though, is that this is a concerto which can most definitely be played in public.”
Tchaikovsky’s facetiously pointed response to Taneyev on July 11 was: “Most grateful for your performance of the concerto. I will freely admit that it suffers from being too long and regret that those people to whom critical examination of the work was entrusted two years ago did not point to this deficiency at the time. In doing so they would have rendered me a great service, greater even, perhaps, than performing this concerto so magnificently in its present imperfect state. All the same, merci, merci, merci”.
Taneyev also recorded his feelings about the massive cadenza in the first movement: “I find really awkward four pages in the cadenza where the hands have alternating chords. They are very difficult to play, though this is not apparent in performance. I think the audience will get slightly bored by the end of the second page, and by the end of the fourth, will begin to lose patience”.
Following the first performances Tchaikovsky was upset by the concerto’s relative lack of popularity, as he considered it to be among his best works, and one with which he had worked with pleasure. In the late 1880s, he made some alterations and cuts, as many pianists considered the concerto to be too long. For the St. Petersburg premiere in 1888 with Vassily Sapellnikov as soloist, Tchaikovsky authorised three cuts (bars 319-342 in the first movement; bars 247-281 and 320-326 in the second movement), but the piano writing was left unchanged.
That same year his publisher Jurgenson was planning to issue a second edition of Tchaikovsky’s Second Piano Concerto, so Tchaikovsky asked pianist Alexander Siloti, who was a successful player of the First Concerto, for his ideas about improving the piano writing. Alexander Siloti proposed to Tchaikovsky a number of fundamental changes to the first and second movements. Tchaikovsky did not agree with these, and decided only to make changes to the piano part: “I absolutely cannot agree to your cuts, and especially those in respect of the first movement… my author’s sensibilities strongly riled by your displacements and changes, and it is impossible for me to agree to them. I want the Second Concerto in the form I had Sapellnikov play it, and I have marked your copy accordingly… your idea of transferring the cadenza to the end left a bitter taste, and made my hair stand on end”. The concerto was not reprinted in the 1880s.
In 1891 Tchaikovsky returned to the idea of reprinting the concerto. In a letter to Pyotr Jurgenson of March 30, 1891, he wrote: “The Second Concerto is also impossible in its current form. I recall that you wanted to reprint it—but I don’t know your position now. It contains many blunders of mine, but the number of mistakes in the parts is, in a word, disgraceful. I have endured many torments with this concerto at rehearsals”.
However, it was not until 1893 that Alexander Siloti began to prepare the concerto in a revised edition, with the agreement of the author. Under intense pressure from Siloti, Tchaikovsky agreed to some changes, while being careful to preserve its overall form and protect his original concept.
In his letter to Siloti dated July 26, 1893: “No, my dear Sasha, I’m not completely happy with your projected changes in the Andante. You would have it that the melody occurs twice, and then for no rhyme nor reason an inexplicably long coda at the end. This structure seems somehow very odd and curtailed! ” And Tchaikovsky continues explaining what could be cut and what must be retained.
He did not agree also for the small changes in the other movements. He pointed in particular the modification of the piano part, bars 50 to 71 in the first movement, where Siloti changed the fifths by octaves or single notes:”Such fifths, taken with the 2nd and 5th fingers, are, in the first place, not difficult, and secondly, they sound so pleasant. I feel the same way in relation to your other alterations. But I completely accept that you’re right to think that it’s more convenient. So let all your corrections appear in the form of ossia, i.e. as one chooses.”
He also added “Cuts are unnecessary in the 1st movement, and if you have your way then it would turn out as something terribly odd and incomplete in form. The repeat of the main section after the recapitulation is absolutely essential in sonata form—otherwise the listener might not catch on, and will be surprised and confused that the end has come so abruptly”.
However, Tchaikovsky was grateful to Siloti for the time he spent trying to “improve” the concerto, even if he did not completely agree with him about the changes and cuts : “thank you for your interest and attention to this unfortunate second concerto, which, however, I like far more than the first”.
Again in his letter to Siloti dated August 8, 1893, he was steadfast: “Everything that you advise me to do is probably highly practical, but a foolish author’s feeling in me revolts against radical changes. I will definitely not allow the cadenza to be changed: it would have to be composed anew. The cadenza somehow suggested itself just at this point and in order to place it elsewhere I should have to completely re-arrange the whole work”. And Tchaikovsky goes on saying that to change details is possible but not to recompose again long ago things already put to the public. He also insisted that the Andante should be as he already mentioned in his previous letter.
With finality. Tchaikovsky wrote to Jurgenson, August 20, 1893: “I have agreed to certain of Siloti’s changes, others I quite definitely cannot accept. He is overdoing it in his desire to make this concerto easy and wants me to literally mutilate it for the sake of simplicity. The concessions I have already made and the cuts which both he and I have introduced are quite sufficient … I am exceedingly grateful to you for your readiness to re-publish this concerto. There will be no great changes… it will be a matter of cuts only.”
Tchaikovsky died in November 1893 before the republication of the Second Concerto took place. Notwithstanding the fact that Tchaikovsky rejected many of the proposed changes, Alexander Siloti significantly altered the concerto, introducing cuts and transpositions to which the author had not given his consent. Much to his discredit, Jurgenson eventually published the score in 1897 with Siloti’s unauthorised alterations and bearing the shameless title: Nouvelle Edition, revue et diminuée d’après les indications de l’auteur par A. Siloti (New Edition, reviewed and reduced according to the indications of the author by A. Siloti).
In 1955 the original version of the concerto was published in volumes 28 and 46 of Tchaikovsky’s Complete Collected Works, edited by Alexander Goldenweiser, in which the author’s text was reproduced from the autograph full score and arrangement for two pianos.
In the shorter version by Siloti, the third movement (Allegro con fuoco), has no cut (just the piano is silent during four bars near the end when it accompanies the orchestral tutti in the original), but has many changes in the piano writing (notably many places where the two hands play together semi-quaver single notes, replaced by alternated right-hand octaves with left-hand single notes).
The first movement (Allegro brillante in the original and Allegro brillante e molto vivace in Siloti’s version), has one cut (bars 319-342) and also many changes in the piano writing (and not in ossia !). But the cadenza is left unchanged.
The great difference between the two versions is the second movement (Andante non troppo). Here Siloti did large cuts and also transposed great parts of the solo violin to the piano. The result is a much shorter second movement with the piano on the foreground. Needless to say that the original in its form of a triple concerto for piano, violin and cello and without cut is musically far superior.
However, despite Siloti’s efforts to make the Second Concerto shorter and the piano more prominent in the Andante, it never reached the fame of the First Piano Concerto.
Concerning the argument that the concerto was too long, we can note that there was already piano concertos as long if not longer. Brahms Piano Concerto n° 1 and Anton Rubinstein’s Piano Concerto n° 5 come to mind. And Taneyev made his debut as a concert pianist in Moscow playing Brahms First Piano Concerto! (But maybe the Russian public at that time considered Brahms Concerto too long).
So why this concerto has so little success, whichever version?
It is remarkable that among the great pianists who are considered as the best exponents of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, only Emil Gilels recorded the Second Piano Concerto (in Siloti’s version, unfortunately). No recording from Vladimir Horowitz, Sviatoslav Richter, Martha Argerich or Harvey van Cliburn. And if we extend to other famous pianists who recorded the First Concerto with various success, many of them did not record the Second Concerto : Arthur Rubinstein, Claudio Arrau, Solomon Cutner, Géza Anda, Jorge Bolet, Clifford Curzon, Lazar Berman, György Cziffra, Byron Janis, Alexis Weissenberg, Vladimir Ashkenazy, John Ogdon, Daniel Barenboin, Nelson Freire, Andras Schiff, Andrey Gavrilov, Evgeny Kissin, …
Among the great pianists who recorded the Second Concerto in addition to the First, the large majority is Russian : Shura Cherkassky, Nikita Magaloff, Igor Zhukov, Tatyana Nikolayeva, Viktoriya Postnikova, Elisabeth Leonskaja, Mikhail Pletnev, Denis Matsuev, Boris Berezovsky,… or if not Russian, winners of the Tchaikovsky piano competition : Peter Donohoe, Barry Douglas, John Lill. Garrick Ohlsson, Stephen Hough and a few others are exceptions.
The first movement is probably what could rebuff both pianists and listeners. Allegro brillante said Tchaikovsky, and indeed it is very brilliant ! There is a kind of exuberance in the virtuoso writing of the piano which can seem excessive, as an endless succession of scales and arpeggios with octaves and rapid alternated chords to show off. But you can see also this exuberance as part of the musical language. The mood of this movement is both conquering and highly impassioned; an intense, feverish passion, expressed by these outbursts of virtuoso passages. Now if the pianist plays straightforward with flashy virtuosity this movement can become quickly boring, but if he plays with subtlety and imagination (Cherkassky for instance) it is very exciting.
To note the similarity with the First Concerto for the first cadenza with the repeated notes of the theme. In the First Concerto the four notes of the theme are followed by rapid ascending arpeggios (bars 40 and following), in the Second Concerto the five notes of the theme are followed by rapid descending scales (bars 267 and following)
Concerning the big cadenza, I find strange Taneyev’s remarks. The pages he mentioned contain one of the most fascinating virtuoso passage (bars 427-478) you can find in a cadenza. Prestissimo, martellato and pianissimo wrote Tchaikovsky (Prestissimo, legierrissimo and pppp! on Siloti’s edition). This is an impressive breathless race, truly difficult to play but winsome and certainly not boring.
The second movement in its original form is very beautiful. Slightly melancholic and full of passion, with dramatic climax. It is thrilling. And what a beautiful tune played by the solo instruments!
The third movement is joyous, rhythmic and full of impulse, always witty and resolutely optimistic.
However, the Second Concerto is not readily attractive like the First Concerto. It is less epic and the opening is less impressive. The martial theme at the beginning is certainly not as seductive as the famous lyrical theme of the First Concerto. The first movement lacks the dramatic struggle so present in the First Concerto, and the third movement is more commonplace, without the grand majestic ending, even if the very ending is quite similar. But if you listen to this concerto carefully you will see that there is a lot to admire. Maybe it is not such a masterpiece as the First Concerto, nevertheless, it is a beautiful work, full of passion with plenty of good tunes and thrilling moments.
(c) Gerard Pellerin 2017