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).

Tuesday Night Miscellany

– Stephen Hough has a remarkably poetic post on Anglican Evensong.

– Matthew Guerrieri on the Harbison 6th.

– George Crumb premiere coming up this weekend in Philly with Orchestra 2001. David Patrick Stearns has a preview.

Prism collaborates with Music from China in NYC February 3 and in Philly Feb. 4. Details here.

Here’s a video prepared by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center with Gil Kalish on Crumb:

Stephen Hough and the piano quintet

Stephen Hough writes here about some interesting programs he has devised for a Wigmore Hall series – the pattern of piano solo, string quartet, piano quintet is simple and brilliant, and I was pleased to see the diversity of the American program he has planned – Feldman, Carter, Lieberman. I tried and failed to comment on the post, but couldn’t get it to work, despite registering a Telegraph account. So I will say here what I planned to say there – that Americans have served the genre of the piano quintet well, with significant pieces by Wuorinen, Rochberg and Harbison, in addition to pieces by two of the composers already on Hough’s program – Carter and Feldman. (It’s a crime that the recording of the Rochberg by the Concord and Alan Marks is out of print.) It’s a genre dear to my heart, having had a wonderful time playing the Brahms with the Cassatt Quartet a few years ago, as well as playing and recording my own quintet with the Cavani and later, at Alice Tully, with the Miami.