Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No 1 - Martha Argerich

Apparently my grandfather enjoyed watching skating because the fact that they might fall over made it all the more exciting.  I don't think he particularly enjoyed seeing people hurt themselves, but the potential danger adds a certain tension to the performance.  The same can be said for any dangerous sport or artistic performances such as Cirque du Soleil.

Pyotr llych Tchaikovsky 1840-1873

Pyotr llych Tchaikovsky 1840-1873

It is the same in music, particularly with the big romantic piano concertos by composers such as Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Liszt, Prokofiev and Rachmaninov.  They must be listened to live.  This means that the recording should be made at a concert in front of an audience.  The pianist and orchestra only have one shot it and the fact they have to get it right first time adds a tension which these big concertos need.  If a pianist is able to do lots of different takes, then it can become too safe and rather dull.  This isn't the same for Mozart and Haydn which are altogether more delicate.

The thundering opening chords of Tchaikovsky's immense Piano Concerto No 1 in Bb minor are some of the most famous in all classical music.  However, they weren't always universally applauded.  When Tchaikovsky first played them to the eminent pianist and friend Nicolai Rubenstein he said they were "clumsy…..badly written….vulgar with only two or three pages worth preserving".  But Tchaikovsky weathered the storm and refused to re-write any of it "I shall not alter a single note".  Rubenstein later changed his tune and became a huge champion of the work.

Tchaikovsky's piano concerto became the first piece of classical music to sell a million records. In 1958 the American pianist Van Cliburn won the first Tchaikovsky Piano Competition playing the work.  This surprised many as he was an American playing a Russian work in Russia at the height of the Cold War.  But his subsequent recording of this great piano concerto was very passionate and exciting and went triple platinum.

All three movements of the concerto are deeply romantic.  The opening one is very showy with expansive, sweeping themes, the second has some very beautiful and soulful melodies and the third is edge of your seat stuff from start to finish.

Martha Argerich

Martha Argerich

Without doubt the best recording of this work is by the great pianist Martha Argerich recorded live with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Claudio Abbado.  This is a high voltage, tighten your seat belt moment.  As the Gramophone review says "The Russians may claim this concerto for themselves, but even they will surely listen in disbelief".  It is such an exciting performance and yet at the same time so sublime and musical particularly the second movement.  In the finale, Argerich plays at such a pace you think she might take off but yet you have a sense that she is in complete control.

At the age of 73 Martha Argerich still dominates the concert platform and will always be on the list of one of the greatest concert pianists ever.  Despite periods of ill health her schedule throughout 2015 is extremely hectic and she will be in London in April with Daniel Barenboim and the Berlin Staatskapelle playing Beethoven Piano Concerto No 1.

Unfortunately there no clips of Claudio Abbado conducting Argerich playing this work.  But here she is playing it conducted by her ex-husband Charles Dutoit.     YouTube     

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Posted on March 22, 2015 .