Russian pianists

Finding Tchaikovsky’s voice in his first piano concerto

In a long-ago lecture in Eugene, the legendary Russian pianist Lazar Berman made his choice. Now you can listen and decide for yourself.


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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