Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, op. 23

“You must weed out the banalities and make some of the unplayable passages playable” – this was the withering reaction of Nikolai Rubinstein to the score of the B flat minor concerto, after the composer showed it to him. Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) was deeply wounded by the opinion of his fellow musician and friend.

However, he elected not to take his advice. Instead, he removed Rubinstein’s name as dedicatee and replaced it with that of Hans von Bülow. Tchaikovsky had met von Bülow during the pianist’s Russian concert tour in 1874, and the two men formed a friendship. He showed von Bülow the concerto, and although the pianist found it technically challenging, he undertook to perform it. After its hugely successful world premiere in Boston (1875), he played it in a number of German cities, where it was enthusiastically received. In Moscow, the solo part was taken by Taneyev. Rubinstein had the grace to realise he had been mistaken and did master it to the extent that he performed at a concert in Paris.
The concerto has enjoyed unbroken popularity ever since and it is not hard to understand why. Its first movement begins with an outstanding introduction, both in its musical impact and the visual spectacle of the pianist hammering out chords up and down the piano: the epitome of the Romantic concerto. Tchaikovsky craftily places a few bars of an introduction in B flat minor, before placing the work firmly in D flat major. After the minor introduction, the major sounds all the brighter. And yet what happens next is unusual, to say the least. The principal theme, after its lengthy exposition, seems to end this particular chapter. The music quietens, only the woodwind is heard, and a sense of expectation aroused. The next theme, which is now peculiar excited, is in 4/4 metre, in contrast to the triple metre in the introduction. This square metre is retained for the rest of the movement. We hear a confessional melody (perhaps we could call this the subsidiary theme of a sonata form), then a simpler song that has the flavour of a children’s song. After a relatively short development, Tchaikovsky recapitulates them once more, but we never hear the undisguised 3/4 principal theme again in the movement. The slow movement has a simple three part form. Its principal section is melodic and romantic, while the central section takes on the character of a Mendelssohnian scherzo, a formula that was popularly borrowed by many 19th century composers. The principal theme of the closing movement “Allegro con fuoco” has been identified by researchers as a Ukrainian folk tune (others have hazarded similar conjectures about the famous first movement  melody). It is certainly not hard to read folk associations into this melody which again is in 3/4 time. By the end of the movement, it has taken on an almost hymnal character. This music does radiate the joy of life, although perhaps this is precisely what Rubinstein sensed was “banal”. Shortly after the Moscow performance of the concerto, Nikolai Rubinstein backtracked in dramatic fashion and admitted he was wrong. In Paris, he performed the concerto, and was seen bowing proudly to the enthusiastic audience.