A guide to Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1

Pianist Tony Yike Yang talks us through this "grand and majestic" masterpiece.
Tony Yike Yang performs at the 15th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Forth Worth, Texas, in June 2017. (Cliburn Competition)

It's among the most popular works in the entire classical repertoire, a favourite of concert pianists headlining with symphony orchestras the world over.

Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto in B-flat Minor, Op. 23, entered the world in 1875 in Boston, of all places.

And therein lies a story: Tchaikovsky had written the concerto for his Moscow Conservatory colleague, Nikolay Rubinstein, to play. But Rubinstein said it was badly written and refused to play it unless Tchaikovsky made important changes. Insulted, Tchaikovsky offered it instead to German pianist Hans von Bülow, who liked it and gave the world premiere during an American tour.

The concerto was an immediate success and has been a staple of the repertoire ever since, its penetration into pop culture later being confirmed by its use on The SimpsonsMad Men and numerous films.

Its most famous performance happened at the inaugural International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1958 — the height of the Cold War — when pianist Van Cliburn played it in the final round. It took approval by then Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev for the jury to award the first prize to an American.

'A very emotional work'

"This concerto is so popular because of how easy the melodies are to remember," says pianist Tony Yike Yang, who has played "Tchaik 1" with the Cleveland Orchestra and the Hunan Symphony Orchestra, and has an upcoming performance with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra on Feb. 10. "It's also a very emotional work, so it's bound to tug on people's hearts, like it did on mine when I first started learning the piece."

We asked Yang to guide us through it.

"Recently, I've been listening a lot to Alexei Sultanov's performances of it," Yang reflects. "It's absolutely mind-blowing how titanic he's able to make the piece sound — unlike any other recording of it."

Yang says the key to a successful performance of the work is passion. "It's supposed to be a very maestoso and exciting piece, so if you can sustain excitement throughout the passages of build-up that require them, then the performance will be pretty convincing. It also provides for a nice contrast against the more lyrical, singing sections."

1st movement

In this concerto, the pianist has little time to get in the zone before the solo part begins. "I prefer concerti like this a lot more," Yang admits. "A long orchestral introduction forces you to wait until your hands are cold before you start playing. Most of my favourite concerti actually start with the soloist entering very early on: Rach 3, Prok 2, Schumann, Ravel, etc."

He finds the iconic opening minutes to be therapeutic. "These are warm, massive chords that can help you relax your hands and arms before all that follows. The theme also just sounds fantastic with the orchestra, so it sets a nice overall mood for the performance."

The power chords and dazzling octaves soon give way to a gracious second theme introduced in the woodwinds. "For me, it feels like relief, both from a technical and structural standpoint," says Yang. "Everything has been so tumultuous until now, and the introduction of the second theme is the first time in the piece where we can be a little more intimate. Of course, the passion is still there, but it is expressed very differently.

A passage of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 is shown here. (Public Domain)

"The most exciting passage for me would probably have to be the famous octave passage towards the end of the exposition. The build-up towards this passage is absolute insanity, and to finish it off with these titanic octaves feels extremely fulfilling."

'The build-up towards this passage is absolute insanity.' (Public Domain)

The cadenza is the first movement's biggest challenge, says Yang, adding, "It's quite diverse in its virtuosity as well (e.g. octaves, chords, running notes). On top of all that, you have to make sure that the different components of the cadenza are all connected to each other, so it makes for a decent challenge."

2nd movement

"I love the use of the flute for this opening melody — I can't imagine it done with any other instrument! To me, the flute sounds a little bit like a swan, while the pizzicato accompaniment in the strings kind of sounds like water drops. It provides for a very relaxing atmosphere, and a soothing contrast from the preceding movement. I picture swans moving gracefully along a river when I play this main theme. It's a pretty dreamy section, so I really try to go for that kind of ambience through this picture that I'm imagining.

"I try my best not to think about the [upcoming] scherzo while playing this opening section," explains Yang, referring to the B section of this movement. "It's always important to live in the present when performing."

To create the right atmosphere during the delicate passages of the second movement, Yang says he likes to think about the big picture rather than individual notes. "When you think like this, your hands work wonders and they magically self-adjust to realize your intentions."

3rd movement

According to Yang, one of the challenges of the third movement is maintaining synchronization with the orchestra. "There is a strong tendency in this movement for the pianist to lean forward in terms of tempo. It would be safest to stay in one tempo, given the fast tempo required of this movement (making it more susceptible to falling apart), but if you do decide to incorporate any abrupt accelerandos or tempo fluctuations, make sure you let the conductor know," he cautions.

"It's all about getting it into your muscle memory," advises Yang. "Practise it both slowly and up to tempo for as many times as it takes for that to happen."

About one minute in, Tchaikovsky subtly introduces a melody in the strings that will eventually become the theme that concludes the concerto in heroic style. To get there, the soloist has a gauntlet of double octaves to run.

The arrival of the concluding theme of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1. (Public Domain)

"It feels extremely satisfying to reach this full-blown version of the theme. It kind of feels like homecoming after a long journey given how similar it is to the very beginning of the concerto in the sense that it's extremely grandioso and maestoso. However, there is an added feeling of triumph, too, this time around.

Yang considers the final 10 pages of the score to be among the most exciting moments in classical music. "The adrenaline you get, both from playing and from listening, is incomparable. Everything from the famous octave passage (in addition to the one in the first movement) to the grandioso full-blown presentation of the main theme to the almost presto-like ending (it's actually allegro vivo, but it feels more like a presto to me) makes for a thrilling conclusion to this phenomenally written concerto."

Yang plays Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra and conductor Alain Trudel on Sunday Feb. 10. Also on the program: works by Humperdinck, Borodin and McPherson. Details here.


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