I don’t know of another recording of the work that gets the sound of the piano better. On the better copies the percussive quality of the instrument really comes through. It’s amazing how many piano recordings have poorly miked pianos. The badly recorded pianos are either too distant, lack proper reproduction of the lower registers, or somehow smear the pounding of the keys into a blurry mess.
Or is it a mastering issue?
A pressing issue?
To be honest, it’s probably all three.
On the best copies the rich texture of the strings is out of this world — you will have a very hard time finding a DG with better string tone. This record does not have the shortcomings of the average DG: it’s not hard, shrill, or sour.
DG made plenty of good records in the ’50s and ’60s, then proceeded to fall apart, like most labels did. This is one of their finest. It proves conclusively that at one time — 1962 to be exact — they clearly knew what they were doing.
Richter Owns the Work
Richter is brutal at the piano. He pounds the hell out of it, which is precisely what the work demands. Karajan, in contrast to his partner in all of this, has the orchestra play especially sweetly, the opposite of what you would expect from the man. Thankfully he is able to summon the brute power of the orchestra when called for. I’ve never been a fan of Karajan; I know of few of his recordings that are compelling. What his reputation as a great conductor is based on is frankly a mystery to me. Having said that, on this record he is wonderful. I cannot begin to fault his work here in any way.
What’s shocking is how lifeless the famous Van Cliburn (LSC 2252) recording is. Granted we did not have ten copies to play, but the ones we did play were the smallest and most compressed classical recording we listened to all day. They went into the trade pile and we will never buy another.
This DG recording has little competition in terms of sonics. Furthermore, we feel strongly that it has no competition in terms of performance. It’s simply the best.
Most Copies Do Not Sound Good…
So What Else Is New?
My good friend Robert Pincus turned me on to this recording close to twenty years ago. Since then I’ve had the chance to audition dozens of clean copies of it and have found rather shocking amounts of pressing variablity. I was, naively of course, expecting to be able to find good copies to shoot out and offer on the site on a regular basis.
Much to our chagrin we discovered that many of the clean copies we were lucky enough to find tended to sound compressed, harsh, lacking in ambience, and missing the full weight of the piano, one of the qualities that makes this recording such an exceptionally powerful listening experience. This explains why our shootouts are so infrequent. Who knows when the next one will be. The record gods appear to be more and more capricious with each passing day.
Commentary and Background
These days, when the music of Tchaikovsky is among the most popular in the repertory, it is difficult to imagine the composer as a young man, known only to a limited public and trying valiantly to solve that most pressing of all problems for the budding artist—making a living. In 1874 he was teaching at the Moscow Conservatory and writing music criticism for a local journal. Those duties provided a modest income, but Tchaikovsky’s real interest lay in composition, and he was frustrated with the time they took from his creative work. He had already stolen enough hours to produce a sizeable body of music, but only Romeo and Juliet and the Symphony No. 2 had raised much enthusiasm.
At the end of the year, he began a piano concerto with the hope of having a success great enough to allow him to leave his irksome post at the Conservatory. By late December, he had largely sketched out the work, and, having only a limited technique as a pianist, he sought the advice of Nikolai Rubinstein, director of the Moscow Conservatory and an excellent player. Tchaikovsky reported on the interview in a letter:
On Christmas Eve 1874…Nikolai asked me…to play the Concerto in a classroom of the Conservatory. We agreed to it….I played through the first movement. Not a criticism, not a word. Rubinstein said nothing….I did not need any judgment on the artistic form of my work; there was question only about its mechanical details.
This silence of Rubinstein said much. It said to me at once: ‘Dear friend, how can I talk about details when I dislike your composition as a whole?’ But I kept my temper and played the Concerto through. Again, silence.
‘Well?’ I said, and stood up. There burst forth from Rubinstein’s mouth a mighty torrent of words. He spoke quietly at first; then he waxed hot, and at last he resembled Zeus hurling thunderbolts.
It appeared that my Concerto was utterly worthless, absolutely unplayable; passages were so commonplace and awkward that they could not be improved; the piece as a whole was bad, trivial, vulgar. I had stolen this from that one and that from this one; so only two or three pages were good for anything, while the others should be wiped out or radically rewritten.
I cannot produce for you the main thing: the tone in which he said all this. An impartial bystander would necessarily have believed that I was a stupid, ignorant, conceited note-scratcher, who was so impudent as to show his scribble to a celebrated man.
Tchaikovsky was furious, and he stormed out of the classroom. He made only one change in the score: he obliterated the name of the original dedicatee—Nikolai Rubinstein—and substituted that of the virtuoso pianist Hans von Bülow, who was performing Tchaikovsky’s piano pieces across Europe. Bülow gladly accepted the dedication and wrote a letter of praise to Tchaikovsky as soon as he received the score:
The ideas are so original, so powerful; the details are so interesting, and though there are many of them they do not impair the clarity and unity of the work. The form is so mature, so ripe and distinguished in style; intention and labor are everywhere concealed. I would weary you if I were to enumerate all the characteristics of your work, characteristics which compel me to congratulate equally the composer and those who are destined to enjoy it.
After the scathing criticism from Rubinstein, Tchaikovsky was delighted to receive such a response, and he was further gratified when Bülow asked to program the premiere on his upcoming American tour. The Concerto created such a sensation when it was first heard, in Boston on October 25, 1875, that Bülow played it on 139 of his 172 concerts that season.
Such a success must at first have puzzled Rubinstein, but eventually he and Tchaikovsky reconciled their differences over the work. Tchaikovsky incorporated some of his suggestions in the 1889 revision, and Rubinstein not only accepted the Concerto, but eventually made it one of the staples of his performing repertory.
During the next four years, when Tchaikovsky wrote Swan Lake, the Rococo Variations, the Third and Fourth Symphonies, the Violin Concerto, and, in 1877, met his benefactress Nadezhda von Meck, he was not only successful enough to leave his teaching job to devote himself entirely to composition, but he also became recognized as one of the greatest composers of his day.
Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto opens with the familiar theme of the introduction, a sweeping melody nobly sung by violins and cellos above thunderous chords from the piano. After a brief cadenza for the soloist, the theme—which is not heard again anywhere in the Concerto—is presented a second time in an even grander setting. Following a decrescendo and a pause, the piano presents the snapping main theme. (Tchaikovsky said that this curious first theme was inspired by a tune he heard sung by a blind beggar at a street fair.)
Following a skillful discussion of the opening theme by piano and woodwinds, the clarinet announces the lyrical, bittersweet second theme. A smooth, complementary phrase is played by the violins. This complementary phrase and the snapping motive from the main theme are combined in the movement’s impassioned development section. The recapitulation returns the themes of the exposition in altered settings. (The oboe is awarded the second theme here.) An energetic cadenza and a coda derived from the second theme bring this splendid movement to a rousing close.
The simplicity of the second movement’s three-part structure (A–B–A) is augured by the purity of its opening—a languid melody wrapped in the silvery tones of the solo flute, accompanied by quiet, plucked chords from the strings. The piano takes over the theme, provides it with rippling decorations, and passes it on to the cellos. The center of the movement is of very different character, with a quick tempo and a swift, balletic melody. The languid theme and moonlit mood of the first section return to round out the movement.
The crisp rhythmic motive presented immediately at the beginning of the finale and then spun into a complete theme by the soloist dominates much of the last movement. In the theme’s vigorous full-orchestra guise, it has much of the spirit of a robust Cossack dance. To balance the impetuous vigor of this music, Tchaikovsky introduced a contrasting theme, a romantic melody first entrusted to the violins. The dancing Cossacks repeatedly advance upon this bit of tenderness, which shows a hardy determination to dominate the movement. The two themes contend, but it is the flying Cossacks who have the last word to bring this Concerto to an exhilarating close.
Dr. Richard E. Rodda