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Piano Concerto No 2 in G major, Op 44
Even when there were no deadlines looming, Tchaikovsky forced himself to maintain a constant flow of compositions, and even became anxious and depressed when there was no work in progress. One such moment came in the summer of 1879, and to improve his mood, Tchaikovsky began work on his second piano concerto. While his efforts fell short of the level of inspiration evident in his first concerto, No 2 is undeniably attractive, and elaborate in design. Nikolai Rubinstein was once again the chosen performer for the premiere, and Tchaikovsky was understandably anxious about how the pianist would receive the new work. He sent the draft score to Taneyev, asking if he thought anything needed changing in the piano-writing. Taneyev assured him that all was well, and the score was passed on to Rubinstein. Rubinstein was not hostile this time, but he still had reservations: the piano part was not prominent enough and the tendency towards dialogue with the orchestra made the part too ‘episodic’. In the event, his sudden death in 1881 removed him from the scene, and Taneyev became the soloist for the concerto’s premiere in 1882. The critics found the work overlong, and Tchaikovsky jokingly reprimanded Taneyev for not correcting that in time. Feeling nevertheless that there might be some truth in the judgement, he decided some cuts should be made, first taking on the task himself, then entrusting it to the pianist Alexander Siloti. On the return of the score, Tchaikovsky thought that Siloti’s editing was too damaging to the concerto’s structure, particularly in the second movement. The composer strongly objected: ‘I will definitely not allow the cadenza to be changed; it would have to be composed anew. The cadenza somehow suggested itself just at this point and in order to place it elsewhere I should have to rearrange the whole work completely.’ But the composer died before he was able to oversee the new edition of the concerto to the end, and the publisher, Jurgenson, simply issued Siloti’s version as if it were authorized, calculating, no doubt, that the pianist was the shrewder judge of public taste. The whole affair was quite typical of nineteenth-century performers’ attitudes to the concertos they played; the score was merely considered to be the composer’s version, and not holy writ, not least because many pianists composed and improvised, unlike most of their present-day counterparts.

The first movement is substantial and elaborately wrought, although its content is sometimes criticized for being derivative. We can indeed hear Schumann through the themes and their development, Liszt in the passagework, and even Weber in the auspicious beginning of the coda (which seems to be modelled on the equivalent moment in the Freischütz overture). The imposing theme at the opening is a Schumannesque march for a few bars, but it quickly takes on a more Russian character through touches of modal harmony. The foil to this theme is more soloistic, but lyrical and anxious, and this in turn leads to the first brief cadenza for the piano—the several cadenzas in this concerto come and go quite spontaneously. This cadenza ends on an insistent repetition of a dominant-seventh chord, as if demanding a reprise of the main theme, but the expected cadence is ‘interrupted’, and instead we arrive at the second theme, in the colourful key of E flat major. This melody, and its setting for clarinet, may be reminiscent of Agatha’s theme in Freischütz, but it also belongs to a species of Tchaikovsky theme: based on a simple descending scale, these themes begin on the third degree as if written for an operatic soprano or a tenor (such themes proliferate in Eugene Onegin). This theme is emotionally charged and tends to veer towards the minor, undermining the otherwise bright mood. Escaping from these shadows, the theme reaches its apotheosis in the key of C major (an unexpected move within the framework of a sonata exposition). Descending slowly from this climactic passage, Tchaikovsky begins the development section, which is framed by two cadenzas (the second is the largest cadenza of the movement and highly virtuosic). The ensuing recapitulation serves to restore tonal balance after the colourful key shifts of the exposition, and the movement ends on a note of brilliance.

In the second movement, Tchaikovsky moves towards the triple-concerto genre, offering us a luxuriant solo-violin ‘aria’; a little later, a solo cello joins in to create a duet. The piano finally enters with the same theme recast in the manner of a Chopin nocturne. The music becomes progressively more nervous, leading up to a precarious climax whose energy is dissipated in a double cadenza for the string soloists. In the reprise, the three soloists now join forces to play the theme together, as a chamber-music piano trio, with the pianist providing accompaniment figures. Although the piano part contains a few more flourishes before and during the mysterious coda, piano soloists may feel a degree of consternation at the limited role they play in this movement, the most lyrically attractive of the concerto.

In the finale, by way of compensation, the pianist is granted a great display of virtuosity in torrents of octaves and other passagework figures. The movement bounces along on Schumannesque rhythms, albeit in a lighter style than Schumann would have allowed himself, with sunny hints of Mediterranean popular song shining through. This is unashamed and unpretentious entertainment music, and highly enjoyable.

from notes by Marina Frolova-Walker © 2010

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