Movement 1: Allegro non troppo e molto maestoso – Allegro con spirito
Movement 2: Andantino semplice – Prestissimo – Andantino semplice
Movement 3: Allegro con fuoco – Molto meno mosso – Allegro vivo
Deservedly one of Tchaikovsky’s most popular works, this concerto succeeds on every level: the great virtuosity of the piano part is matched by the colourful orchestration, while formal intricacy coexists with a succession of inspired melodies. The first movement begins with a majestic introduction in D flat major, a deceptive move, since the tonal centre of the concerto is actually B flat. This beautiful dithyrambic theme disappears from the scene enigmatically, never to be heard again, although one of its motifs can be found in a lyrical theme at the beginning of the second movement, in D flat, while the ‘apotheosis’ second theme of the finale (again in D flat), is cut from the same cloth. This, indeed, is a characteristic of the work: Tchaikovsky here eschews obvious unifying devices, preferring intricate thematic transformations and subtle correspondences between the movements.
The approach to the Allegro features fleet figures with a strong rhythmic profile that eventually reveal themselves to be an anticipation of the main Allegro theme itself. Tchaikovsky derived the theme from a popular Ukrainian song traditionally performed by wandering hurdy-gurdy players, although he leaves the character of the original far behind. This is another characteristic of the work: various figurations and passagework either flow into the main melodies or flow from them. A similar theme will appear in the finale, but with a different accentuation pattern—the concerto transforms various motifs in this way.
A more virtuosic passage leads into the Allegro’s lyrical second subject. Although different in character to the first theme, this is also based on a syncopated descending figure. Its plaintive appeals, in the woodwind and piano, receive a reassuring response in a new theme, given to the strings. The ascending scale figures of this new string theme again feature shifting and unpredictable accents. The plaintive theme returns again, now flourishing in a new texture, and at this point we might well imagine that the sonata exposition has come to a close, but a new dramatic turn prompts an outburst from the piano that ends in C minor. Only then does the ‘reassurance’ theme round off the exposition in A flat major.
As we enter the development section, the same theme now sounds a note of anxiety, and becomes the main impetus behind dramatic, brooding sequences, that seem to be building towards a climax. But instead the piano stages a diversion with a triumphant torrent of octaves that leads into a brief cadenza, one of several piano monologues with heightened rhetoric. Here the piano presents us with a version of the ‘plaintive’ theme, now well disguised with syncopated triplet figuration. Another approach to a climax, now led by the piano, culminates in an expansive and cathartic new theme in the very remote key of E major, built on a remarkably simple scale figure (its four-note descent mirroring the ascents heard earlier). This provides the development with its final stretch before the recapitulation emerges almost imperceptibly, the original anticipatory figures now replaced with faster passagework. The course of the recapitulation is complicated by a lengthy and symphonic piano cadenza that serves as a second development section, beginning with solemn chords in G flat major, reminding us of the heroic character of the piano at the opening of the movement. A great climax is dissipated eventually as tinkling bell-like figuration leads to the return of the orchestra for the coda.
The second movement is simpler, but wrought with equal care. The main theme is a nobly lyrical ‘aria’ containing reminiscences of the first movement’s prologue. Figures harking back to the Allegro’s first theme plunge us into a scherzo-like passage, which foreshadows the catchy French popular melody that appears in the middle section. Here we find another four-note ascent, together with ambiguous accentuation thanks to a mixture of duple and triple patterns.
The main theme of the finale features another objet trouvé in the shape of a Ukrainian spring song, but Tchaikovsky chose it carefully, since it contains a descending four-note motif that connects it to several other themes of the concerto in addition to the syncopation that has marked earlier passages. The finale’s rondo form is modified, allowing the second subject to expand into a closing apotheosis that evokes the grandeur of the concerto’s opening pages.
from notes by Marina Frolova-Walker © 2010