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Finding Tchaikovsky’s voice in his first piano concerto

In Eugene, the legendary Russian pianist Lazar Berman made his choice. Now you can decide for yourself.

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By JOSEPH ALBERT


Is there a “right” way for a performer to approach interpreting a classic musical score? And what if the score exists in more than one form, such as Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto #1? How do you even decide which version to perform? The legendary Russian pianist Lazar Berman thought deeply about the question, and dared to venture beyond the usual response.

In February 1987 Berman made his second tour of the United States. He performed in four cities— New York, Eugene, and I think Los Angeles and Chicago.

The performance in Eugene was broadcast on National Public Radio from The Hult Center for the Performing Arts, using its recording capabilities for the simulcast.

I was in attendance at the Hult Center, and remember that the encore was a piano arrangement of Beethoven’s Turkish March from the Ruins of Athens. I was able to locate a newspaper announcement of the radio broadcast in the archive of Madison’s paper, the Wisconsin State Journal, as well as an announcement of the New York recital in The New York Times from which I refreshed my memory of the main program.

The recital program consisted of Liszt’s Dante Sonata, Mephisto Waltz, and Liszt transcriptions of a couple of Schubert songs, Ave Maria and The Forest King; six of Shostakovich’s Preludes from Op. 34; and Moussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.

Left: Tchaikovsky, Feb. 1, 1893, in Odessa. Photo: Vasily Czechowski / Wikimedia Commons. Right: Pianist Lazar Berman, ca. 1988. Photo: Eraevski / Wikimedia Commons

The next day, Mr. Berman gave a lecture (through an interpreter) at the University of Oregon. The topic was Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto #1. There are at least three known scores for the piece, the first one from 1875, a revision completed in 1879, and a final version in 1888. The final version from 1888 is the version that has almost exclusively been performed. There has been an assumption that Tchaikovsky was not fully satisfied with the work, and that the final version is the superior version, with the blessing of the composer.

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Portland Columbia Symphony Realm of Nature Beaverton and Gresham Oregon

Mr. Berman held the position that Tchaikovsky had conceptualized a very lyrical composition resulting in the original version from 1875, but was in a quandary with respect to revising it because pianists of the day would only program the work if there were enough opportunity for bravura, and for the pianist to show off his or her technique.

Mr. Berman laid out the case for his position backed up by one or more letters he found in some archives in a Moscow library or museum. Tchaikovsky had written to others expressing his inner conflict about revising the composition to suit the desires of pianists who hopefully would program the work and ensure its success. 

For Mr. Berman, this validated his belief that the first version was superior, and consistent with the composer’s conceptualization of the piece. He thus wanted to record the piece using the score for the first version from 1875, but had difficulty in doing so. Some of the difficulty likely stemmed from travel restrictions being imposed on him by the Soviet government, but he also had some difficulty finding a conductor willing to do it. He mentioned one well-known conductor not wanting his name associated with what may be received as a recording of an inferior version of the work. 

Ultimately, Mr. Berman was able to record it with the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra in East Berlin, with Yuri Temirkanov conducting. The vinyl LP as well as a remastering as a CD are uncommon, and appear to contain the only known recording of the first version of the piece.

I was recently pleased to learn that the first movement of the concerto from this recording may be streamed from the internet. If you compare the two versions of the composition, a striking difference is with the first entrance of the piano in the opening of the piece. In the last version of the score (the one that is normally played) the chords played by the piano in groups of three moving up the keyboard are played fortissimo and percussively, creating tension with the lyrical melody played by the orchestra, drawing attention to the piano (and stroking the vanity of the soloist). In the first version of the composition, the chords on the downbeats are played head-on but the other two of the group are arpeggiated so that the piano blends with the orchestra, creating a more lyrical effect.

Here is Lazar Berman playing the first movement of the first version with the Berlin Radio Orchestra, conducted by Yuri Temirkanov, and recorded in 1986:

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And here is Lazar Berman with the Berlin Philharmonic under the baton of Herbert von Karajan, playing the third/normal version (all movements), recorded in 1975:

Which do you like better?

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  • Joseph Albert is a pianist residing in Portland. In addition to standard repertoire, he enjoys investigating early keyboard music interpreted on a modern piano.

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One Response

  1. Note: There was one other recording of the original version of the concerto recorded in 1981 by pianist Jerome Lowenthal with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sergiu Comissiona. This recording is available to stream the full concerto in the original version.

    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=B3EB5aojrAY

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