When I was a teenager I fought hard to hate the music of Tchaikovsky who was then, maybe he still is, the world’s most popular classical music composer. I suspect I was not entirely free from adolescent arrogance at that time but I found a long line of sneery comments to deflate the composer’s most enthusiastic fans amongst my school mates. It was sometimes difficult though because, love him or hate him, the man just knew how to write really good tunes. I used to argue of course that that was the problem with Tchaikovsky, he wrote great melodies but then didn’t know what to do with them so he just kept repeating them time and time again through a series of not always very interesting harmonic modulations. Well, I haven’t totally changed my mind there but even at my most unforgiving I couldn’t resist showing off with a pianist friend when I found a copy of the two piano arrangement of his most famous work, the Piano Concerto No. 1. Luckily for the little show-off that I was, my friend was happy enough to play the orchestral part whilst I played the genius by stumbling accurately enough with all those chords in the famous opening. We decided maybe to stop whilst we were ahead so we never learnt the whole piece – brilliant as that would have been naturally, well, at least in the opinion of some of our least musical friends.
Maybe it was that pure theatrical chutzpah that embarrassed me but also drew me to this music when I was still worried about such things. So I was a secret admirer of this piece and a few others by the great Russian too – the Sixth Symphony, of course, but also, when wanting to hear some very loud music indeed, I would play the sensational Antal Dorati recording of the 1812 Overture whilst particularly relishing the canon shots.
That was then but now, after fifteen years of listening to classical music in a long project where I have been working my way chronologically from the year 1100, I have just reached the year 1875 and I celebrated the new year this week with my first listen to the No. 1 in twenty years and it was a wonderful thing to hear it with historically tuned ears. OK, that rather relentless habit of constantly repeated melodic fragments still grates after a bit but, wow! You really do have to be a total cynic or at least a bombastic teenager to resist the glory not only of those melodies but the thrilling brightly coloured orchestral writing and the sheer excitement of the piano part. I also clocked for the first time that the great, nay, magnificent opening section isn’t a stand alone moment even though the tune never reappears (for once!). It defines the harmony within telling us what it is subliminally and it gives the whole concerto a unity that my sneering ears missed all those years ago.
It would have been very different if when I was 17, I could have had the pianistic genius of the young Yevgeny Kissin who instead of sneering about this ferociously difficult concerto, found himself performing it with the World’s greatest orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by the biggest name in classical music at that time, the terrifying Herbert von Karajan. Kissin was the beginning of his career and Karajan at the end – he would die a year later. They came together for a New Year’s Eve concert in 1988 and more than a little fire was ignited along with some very forgiveable missed notes.
Listen to them playing the concerto’s first movement with that most famous of all introductions but before that, after some mercifully brief words from Karajan’s daughter in German, listen to the older Yevgeny Kissin describe that most moving of meetings.
Then, if you can, try to resist the music itself: