Tchaikovsky’s final concerto arose from a symphonic draft, in this case, the rejected first movement, dating back to 1889, for what was to become his famous ‘Pathétique’ Symphony. He wanted to write a symphony that would cover human life and death, and the planned work began with a heroic Allegro which, in his own words, represented ‘impulsive passion, confidence, thirst for activity’. The symphony was to end with a slow and quiet portrayal of death. If we imagine, for a moment, a symphony beginning with the heroic movement that became the third piano concerto and ending with the finale of the ‘Pathétique’, Tchaikovsky’s problem becomes apparent—the emotional distance seems too great for the confines of even a large symphonic work. It was therefore rejected, not because of any intrinsic demerits, but because it failed to fit the desired symphonic scheme. Still, the entire first movement had been completed through to the scoring, and Tchaikovsky was reluctant to waste it, so he converted it into a piano concerto with minimal disturbance to the original version. The work’s odd genesis can be seen as positive or negative depending on what is expected of a piano concerto: on the one hand, it is a serious piece on a symphonic scale, with thematic material that is of much more noble lineage than anything in the second piano concerto or the Fantasia; on the other hand, pianists have considered the work less attractive because it lacks a virtuosic piano part. The piano part, indeed, is integrated into the symphonic texture much more than in most other concertos (although Rachmaninov’s second comes close to it), but Tchaikovsky attempts to compensate for this with a lengthy cadenza.
The concerto begins with an unusual theme given to the bassoons (the other woodwind joining in later)—clearly intended to be heroic and imposing, but still subdued in its first airing. Unusually for Tchaikovsky, this beautiful theme lacks harmonic movement and sits on a tonic pedal, bringing it closer to the opening themes we often find in Glazunov’s symphonies. A contrasting middle section introduces images that are more disturbing— fantastic in the manner of The Nutcracker
—but these are dismissed upon the return of the opening theme, now fully triumphant. The second, lyrical theme in the distant key of G major lifts us onto a plateau of stillness and calm, but a third theme is still to come, a lively dance à la russe, set out in a toccata-like texture, with some surprising harmonic changes and more idiomatic piano-writing. Tchaikovsky brews up some storms in the development section, but instead of leading to triumph or tragedy, they simply fade away into strains of the second, calm theme on each occasion. The task of converting the development into concerto format was made easier by splitting it into a purely orchestral section and a large piano solo section (the main cadenza). The recapitulation is given extra dynamism thanks to a new harmonization of the first theme that pulls it away from its static origins, while a brilliant coda draws the concerto to a life-affirming close.
Tchaikovsky once again sought Taneyev’s advice, and received confirmation that the main problem was the lack of virtuosity in the piano-writing. Tchaikovsky was now undecided whether to leave the concerto as it stood (he had already promised it in this form to the pianist Louis Diémer), or to expand it into a full-length concerto with the addition of two more movements (which would provide opportunities for greater pianistic display). In the end, he died without completing the sketched outlines of a planned Andante and Finale, and Taneyev edited these afterwards, publishing them under a separate opus number (Op 79). Taneyev, once again, premiered both the single-movement version, in 1895, and the three-movement version the following year.
from notes by Marina Frolova-Walker © 2010