The Real Tchaikovsky

In 2013, Pianist Kirill Gerstein wrote a piece for the New York Review of Books in which he addressed the question of a possible wrong note in the slow movement of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1, about which I commented here. Now Gerstein has a new post in which he addresses the concerto again. He discusses how a number of places in the concerto were altered in an edition prepared after the composer’s death – changes that Tchaikovsky did not authorize. The opening crashing chords, for example, were conceived as arpeggiated. On principal – being a composer – I am generally in favor of playing what a composer actually writes, and I quite like the arpeggiation. However, I wonder about the other spots Gerstein cites. There are recorded examples at the end of the post illustrating his points, contrasting his own recording with that of Gilels with the Chicago under Reiner. Though Gerstein says the fast section of the second movement is generally played too quickly, his tempo for that portion seems only a little slower than the Gilels version. Whatever is gained by balancing the form of the finale by restoring a cut passage is more than counterbalanced by the plodding character of the restored section; whoever made the cut in the finale made it in the right spot. The athleticism of the cadenza near the end of the finale as it is commonly played, instead of the plainer original version, gives that moment the electricity needed late in the piece, and strikes me as more consistent with the brilliant flurries that close the movement.

It’s clear from the recorded excerpts of his own performance of the concerto that Gerstein is a formidable artist, commanding both power and grace. I am grateful for a chance to hear the “pre-posthumous” version. But the suggestion that going back to the composer’s own version of the concerto is in every case an improvement reminds me of the argument that the Ravel orchestration of Pictures at an Exhibition is too flashy, and more sober versions are preferable. Sometimes, as Leonard Meyer put it to us in theory class when describing a thinly textured contemporary work, less is just less.

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