A Note by Tchaikovsky

Stephen Hough has written two blog posts regarding a note in the opening melody of the slow movement of the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto, first this, then an update. Subsequently, this piece by Kirill Gerstein appeared on the New York Review of Books website. To my ear, either pitch is plausible. What I find questionable in the Gerstein essay is this stuff about European vs. Russian approaches to motivic consistency (the scholar to whom he refers is Polina Vaydman, the senior researcher at the Tchaikovsky State Museum in Klin):

In Vaydman’s opinion,  the idea that this F would be wrong is typical of a European view that repetitions of a theme should match—an idea that is, strictly speaking, in accordance with the elementary laws of music theory. But here Tchaikovsky is not following this principle of repetition. Instead, he chooses to present two micro-variants of the melody, a bit like a forked path that later rejoins. This variability of recurring thematic material is typical of Russian vocal folklore. Tchaikovsky often used this method as a compositional strategy both for expressive and structural purposes, enabling him to give the repetitions a sense of development, thus keeping listeners’ interest from flagging.

If motivic consistency is “European” and variation “Russian”, then why does Artur Schnabel argue in favor of motivic variants throughout his edition of the Beethoven sonatas? Schnabel, that most German of pianists, the artist whose programming of Viennese classical repertoire was so high-minded that he readily joked about the second half of his recital programs being just as boring as the first, was surely not thinking along Russian lines in his insistence that varied repetitions of a motif in Beethoven are intentional. It can be argued that such variants are actually typical of a European view. Is the repetitive quality of Borodin’s In the Steppes of Central Asia or Balakirev’s Islamey “European” or “Russian”? Or maybe the situation is more complex than the Gerstein piece suggests.

The question of a correct pitch in a standard repertoire piece is important, but rather than filling column inches about a single note of Tchaikovsky, would that the NY Review was offering writing about the living composers Hough has championed (including the pianist himself).

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