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).

Orchestration Hit Parade

I am teaching orchestration at my day job this fall, so I was especially struck by the following aphorism in Leonard Slatkin‘s recent book Conducting Business:

There are only three scores you need to study to learn how to orchestrate: Beethoven’s Eroica, the complete Nutcracker and Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges.

Intriguing choices, with one each from the classical, romantic and 20th century periods. I don’t think anyone would take exception to the Beethoven, but the other two choices are a little more offbeat. Both the Tchaikovsky and Ravel are from what Ned Rorem would broadly call the “french” side of the musical universe; there is nothing here from the “german” world of Wagner, Mahler or Strauss (though Virgil Thomson tried to make a case for Mahler as a “french” composer). Notice that Slatkin cites the complete Nutcracker, which involves more heavily scored music than the lighter textures that dominate the divertissement that constitutes the familiar suite (is there anything in music quite like the airborne quality of the Overture in that suite?) Thus with the complete version, you get a fuller picture of romantic period practice. The Ravel that is usually taken up by orchestration classes is the orchestration of Pictures, partly because of its excellence, partly because it is usually published with Mussorgsky’s piano original right there on the same page as Ravel’s orchestral version. But L’enfant is an astonishing piece, too little known. Including it adds a piece with voices to the list. And there are elements in the Ravel that point toward instrumental practices normally associated with much later in the century, for example, George Crumb’s music.
So what do you think of Slatkin’s list? What would be your three pieces?

Here is the beginning of L’enfante, Simon Rattle conducting at Glyndebourne:

Queen of Spades at the Met

I was at the Met for The Queen of Spades on Monday night, and enjoyed the evening greatly. I had not heard Karita Mattila live – as Lisa her voice was very beautiful, sweet and true, but a little wan in the upper register. Vladimir Galouzine as Hermann was the opposite of wan, powerful throughout as the obsessed gambler to the point of being overbearing at times. There was handsome singing from Alexey Markov and Peter Mattei, but to me the real find was Tamara Mumford as Pauline. She is a lovely young woman, and her voice matched Mattila’s for beauty of timbre in their duet, and with an exceptionally rich lower register. I am sorry I missed her in the Opera Company of Philadelphia’s production of Rape of Lucretia not long ago. Much-touted conductor Andris Nelsons did not strike me as anything special. He was able to bring some shaky ensemble moments under control in the early part of the piece, but I did not get much sense of a point of view about the piece. Perhaps I need to know the work better to appreciate what he did.

It is an odd piece. Hermann’s darkly obsessive character contrasts greatly with the various genre pieces, which, though enjoyable, felt like filler. I agreed with the character of the Countess, portrayed by Dolora Zajick, who seemed to think that the Pastorale in the second act went on too long. What is the relevance of the entry of Catherine the Great at the end of that scene? Galouzine’s Hermann was such a madman that I was reminded of another opera about a tormented soldier – Berg’s Wozzeck, which will be at the Met later this season.

(picture: the Countess comes back to haunt Hermann. No, she is not trying to tell her colleague to sing more quietly.)