last week's mystery piece and severely under-appreciated : tchaikovsky's 2nd piano concerto

 Last week I posted this audio (on tumblr) and asked people if they could name the mystery piano concerto. One would think this would be a realtively easy task...but the catch was Googling was off-limits. Apart from the fact that very few people responded to it, only one person was able to guess the piece. The answer was the Piano Concerto No. 2 in G major, Mvt III by Tchaikovsky.

This is where things get interesting. Tchaikovsky is a famous composer by most standards. His first piano concerto has become probably the most famous in all piano literature. His music is played all the time in concert halls all over the world. Yet...a vast majority have no idea he wrote more than one piano concerto. In fact...he wrote two more (though the third piano concerto was unfinished...but that is another story). How come this second piano concerto, which you can hear has a showstopper finale from the above audio, never got equal fame to the first piano concerto?

I can't pretend that I fully know all the complexities as to why one piece becomes popular and another doesn't. I remember a friend making me listen to Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call Me, Maybe" this past winter, claiming it would become the summer hit this year. I said it was annoying and didn't stand a chance...and yet here we are...not able to turn on the radio without hearing it. However, I can provide some facts on the history of the concerto that may point to its lack of success in concert halls and you can draw your own conclusions.


- Tchaikovsky hated the sound of piano and orchestra playing at the same time. Most of you probably did a double take just now...but its true. After writing his first piano concerto, he complained in a letter to a friend that he would never write another piano concerto for just this reason. He certainly went back on his word here, quite possibly because of the massive success/acclaim the first concerto recieved. However, when writing this concerto (and later piano works) he did his best to minimize this "annoyance" by isolating them from each other as much as possible. In the first movement, there are several mini-cadenzas that set off the piano from the orchestra, sort of trading off responsibility.

- Nobody is quite sure what to make of the second movement. After hearing a very piano intense first movement...this movement is sort of a vacation for the soloist. In fact, the piano doesn't even have the most promiment solos here. It opens with solo violin that is soon joined by solo cello. This continues for 3 1/2 minutes before the piano entrance! The melody is beautiful...but it sure is unusual. Halfway through the movement there is a cadenza...but its for the solo violin and cello...not the piano. They build back until the piano's return and many spots in this movement feel like a triple concerto more than a piano concerto. Strange as it is, it has some of the most beautiful lyricism of the entire piece. However, audiences that paid to see a star piano player are certain to be frustrated for the 13-15 (17 minutes with Victoria Postnikova) minute long movement that isn't really about the pianist.

-Its mind-numbingly difficult. Its harder than Tchaikovsky's first piano concerto, considerably longer (by about 10 minutes) and the first movement has a 6 minute long piano cadenza in the middle of the development sure enough to scare any pianist who tries to play it. On top of this, you have to also have 2 high caliber string players to tackle the solos in the second movement. Lining all these hard things up requires a lot of work and would discourage orchestra from programming it versus other repetoire.

-It didn't have a champion when it was first written. The first piano concerto was written for Nikolai Rubenstein, who famously voiced his immense distaste for it when he first played through the piano part in Tchaikovsky's presence. A while later, he changed his opinion and became the work's strongest supporter at the time, not only performing it as often as he could but also teaching it to his students. Tchaikovsky wrote the second piano concerto with Rubenstein in mind as the pianist to first perform it...but Rubenstein died before he could play it. The first Russian premiere was by one of Tchaikovsky's students instead...and the work had neither a champion or a generation of students who were taught it by their teachers.

-the coda of the third movement is very similar to the coda from the third movement of the First piano concerto. see for yourself. Listen to this and then listen to 7:25 in the movement clip at the top of this post. You can tell they are very similar structure...just that the second piano concerto was cranked up a few notches.*

*below excerpt features Sviatoslov Richter, Herbert von Karajan and Berlin Phil

I found this recording of it on youtube where you can watch to the entire work from beginning to end (because frankly...some of the feats the pianist has to accomplish are awesome to watch), but I still recommend the recording that the audio of the third movement above is from. Victoria Postnikova/Vienna Symphony does an INCREDIBLE job and is a recording worth owning.

Piano Concerto No. 2 in G major, Op. 44

Mikhail Pletnev (piano), Vladimir Fedoseyev and Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra

Mvt 1 : Allegro brilliante

Mvt 2 : Andante non troppo (21:17)

Mvt 3 : Allegro con fuoco (34:48)

Get the recordings mentioned in this post: