The Concert Fantasia, popular during Tchaikovsky’s lifetime, fell out of the repertoire and has languished in relative obscurity. It was inspired by the playing of Eugen d’Albert, a Glasgow-born pianist then in his twenties who was causing waves of excitement throughout Europe (he later moved to Germany and switched to composition, writing several successful operas as well as two piano concertos of his own). Liszt thought of him as the next Tausig, while Tchaikovsky felt he was a successor to the Rubinstein brothers. Tchaikovsky initially planned to write a regular concerto, but soon hit on the idea of merging the slow movement with the finale, resulting in a two-movement work. The chosen title of ‘Fantasia’ left Tchaikovsky free to experiment in other ways. The first theme eschews the weight normally given to a sonata-form first subject, and instead proceeds as a dance à la russe, with the light and sparkling quality of many a Tchaikovsky finale. The second theme provides a lyrical contrast as normal, but the development section takes the form of a huge piano cadenza, with the burden of the symphonic argument entrusted to the pianists’ two hands. This is not the first time we have seen Tchaikovsky allocating substantial passages of development to the soloist alone, but here this idea is taken to an extreme. Eventually, when we have almost forgotten about the orchestra, the movement resumes as if nothing had happened.
The second movement is even more determinedly odd, and Tchaikovsky felt it needed the title ‘Contrastes’, as a signal to the public that the normal rules were in abeyance. It begins as a standard slow movement, with a beautiful Italianate theme, perhaps a gondolier’s song. But the song is interrupted by fast dance music with a tambourine beat in the background, forming the first of the advertised contrasts, in tempo, metre and key. The song returns, and then the dance once again, in almost cinematic cuts, prompting us to imagine some kind of carnival scene. This striking design and the abundance of virtuosity might have fitted well with d’Albert’s showmanship, but Tchaikovsky’s chosen pianist was once again unavailable to premiere the piece and the trusty Taneyev successfully filled the breach.
from notes by Marina Frolova-Walker © 2010