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.

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).