Gerstein, Gaffigan find the true heart of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1
In a piece that can seem like a highoctane exercise in who can play faster and louder, they turn in a performance that is refreshingly lyrical and unrushed.
In Boston, 140 years ago this October, Hans von Bülow played the world premiere of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, a piece that within decades became the most popular concerto for piano ever written. Van Cliburn’s recording in 1958 was the first classical album to sell more than 1 million copies (it eventually topped out at more than 3 million.)
It has long been known that the concerto existed in three successive versions, and it is the last of these that we know so well today. But recently, scholars have come to the conclusion that this familiar version includes a number of changes made by editors after Tchaikovsky’s death and that the authentic score, containing the composer’s true intentions, is the second version of 1879. This is the version that the Russian American pianist Kirill Gerstein and American conductor James Gaffigan have recorded with the German Symphony Orchestra Berlin.
The differences are almost immediately audible. For one thing, the familiar stentorian piano chords that accompany the opening soaring melody in the violins are not so loud in the second version and are played as arpeggios, or rolled chords. The second movement has a middle section usually played “prestissimo,” as fast as possible, when in fact Tchaikovsky wanted a less frenetic “allegro vivace.” The standard version of the last movement omits a couple of pages of the score that are happily restored here.
In a piece that can seem like a high-octane exercise in who can play faster and louder, Gerstein and Gaffigan turn in a performance that is refreshingly lyrical and unrushed. Gerstein has a wonderfully natural, musical sound at the piano. His phrases are beautifully wrought, textures are a model of clarity and nothing ever sounds forced. And because the soloist is not always playing as loudly as possible, Gaffigan and the Berlin ensemble are able to provide a contoured collaboration that is short on routine and overblown rhetoric and long on rhythmical precision and vivid Russian color.
The Second Concerto of Sergei Prokofiev is no less remarkable. In place of rhetorical fist pounding in the vast opening Andantino, Gerstein allows Prokofiev’s long, tortuous lines to unfold in voluptuous strands, creating the sense of a vast, seamless tapestry. All four movements exhibit a striking unanimity of intent shared by soloist, conductor and ensemble, with everything geared toward vivid contrast. No sooner does the piano spin a tragically tinged narrative of loss than the orchestra sneers in mocking, sarcastic derision. This is a viscerally charged reading of a fiendishly difficult score, both original in concept and compellingly eloquent.
Kirill Gerstein, piano. Deutsches Symphonie Orchester Berlin, James Gaffigan, conductor. Myrios Classics MYR 016. TCHAIKOVSKY: PIANO CONCERTO NO. 1, OP. 23; PROKOFIEV: PIANO CONCERTO NO. 2, OP. 16