Movement 1: Moderato e risoluto
Movement 2: Andante non troppo quasi moderato
Movement 3: Scherzo: Allegro giocoso
Movement 4: Finale: Allegro vivace
The very grand first movement opens with the famous block chords in a theme which will underpin the whole structure, but which gives way to a more decorative melody, the two parts of the theme being united by the dotted rhythm. The delicate second subject is one of its composer’s happiest inspirations, and it is capped by a codetta which at once recalls the opening theme as well as the plainsong Dies irae—a motif more readily associated with Rachmaninov than with his mentor.
The slow movement is largely concerned with a theme of simplicity so stunning that one almost fails to see that it is based on just two notes a semitone apart, and of course it is the fecundity of Tchaikovsky’s harmonic imagination that disguises it. Almost an operatic scena, the music is interrupted by an interlude in characteristic dotted rhythm before a variation of the first theme concludes the first part. The central Moderato con animazione introduces one of Tchaikovsky’s great lyrical flights of melody. The first theme returns swathed in decoration and the following return of the interlude is extended to a mighty climax before a magical coda recalls the central theme with a gentle syncopated accompaniment.
Syncopation dominates the Scherzo—one of Tchaikovsky’s really inventive pieces of pianistic devilry and a cousin to the fiendish Scherzo of the ‘Manfred’ symphony—even in the almost lyrical trio section, and by the time the coda is reached the position of the first beat in the bar has been finally lost to the ear, to be recovered only at the very end.
If the recurring principal theme of the Finale is not this composer’s most subtle, it generates plenty of energy and allows for a fine contrast with the other material: a scherzando second theme that alternates imitations of string and wind choirs, and a wonderfully warm central theme which rises to heights of enthusiasm. Tchaikovsky’s familiar climactic sequences are ubiquitous, but the actual coda is a restrained and valedictory account of the central theme over the constantly repeated keynote, bringing the work to a firm and steady conclusion.
from notes by Leslie Howard © 1997