Program Notes: Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto (October 28-29, 2022)

Program

October 28-29, 2022


Thomas Søndergård, conductor Stephen Hough, piano

Anatoly Liadov

The Enchanted Lake, op. 62 (1909)

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, op. 23 (1874) Allegro non troppo e molto maestoso;

Allegro con spirito

Andantino semplice

Allegro con fuoco


Stephen Hough, piano

Intermission


Sergei Prokofiev

Symphony No. 7 in C-sharp minor, op. 131 (1951) Moderato

Allegretto

Andante espressivo

Vivace

 

Program Notes

By Caitlin Custer


The three composers on this program—Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Anatoly Liadov, and Sergei Prokofiev—share, on paper, remarkably similar demographics. Each was a Russian orchestral composer affiliated with the St. Petersburg Conservatory between the late 1800s and early 1900s. Their educational pursuits at the conservatory linked them together. Tchaikovsky taught Liadov, who in turn taught Prokofiev. Even with so many shared experiences, three unique voices emerged: One modest, one passionate, and one conflicted.

 
Anatoly Liadov
Anatoly Liadov

The Enchanted Lake

Anatoly Liadov

Born 1855, St. Petersburg, Russia

Died 1914, Borvichi, Russia


Anatoly Liadov came from an artistic family. His lineage included conductors, pianists, singers, dancers, and actors, so it was not much of a surprise when he entered the St. Petersburg Conservatory.


From the start, Liadov wasn’t inclined to toil with his work. He had a carefree attitude about attending class (even getting kicked out of Nikolai Rimsky-Korskov’s composition class), married into money, and spent much of his time at a country estate. But he composed steadily, with dozens of works to his name.


Scholar Francis Maes notes that Liadov “called himself a ‘pianissimo composer’… a miniaturist.” Where he excelled was not the full-throated, dramatic sounds typical of his day, but rather the other extreme, in delicate, pastel colors.


The Enchanted Lake was written when Liadov was in his 50s. It’s possible that Liadov took inspiration from Arseny Meshchersky’s painting, “The Mountain Lake,” a landscape in warm golds and mysterious blue-greens. With this work, Liadov lets nature’s serenity speak softly. “How clear,” he wrote to a friend, “the multitude of stars hovering over the mysteries of the deep.”


The music shimmers gently. Strings and woodwinds create an opaque layer of fog. The harp offers brief glimpses of sunlight, only to be enveloped in mystery again.


First performance: February 21, 1909, in St. Petersburg, Russia, Nikolai Tcherepnin conducting

First SLSO performance: March 9, 1924, Rudolph Ganz conducting

Most recent SLSO performance: March 1, 2015, Hans Graf conducting

Instrumentation: 3 flutes, 2 oboes, 3 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, timpani, percussion, harp, celesta, strings

Approximate duration: 6 minutes

 
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Piano Concerto No. 1


Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Born 1840, Votkinsk, Russia

Died 1893, Saint Petersburg, Russia


Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto booms to life in any concert, but it’s even more of a thunderclap following the dreamy sounds of The Enchanted Lake.


Tchaikovsky is remembered for his passionate, ultra-Romantic voice. By the time he wrote his First Piano Concerto at 35 years old, he was confidently staking his claim as a composer. He had left behind the life of a civil servant that was planned for him, going against the grain to study and teach at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. He even broke with expectations as an artist, eschewing Russian nationalism in favor of a broader European sound. This work marked ten years after his first public performance, and he was determined that this new concerto’s premiere would make a splash.


It didn’t come so easily. The first time he played the work for his friend and colleague Nikolai Rubinstein, Tchaikovsky was met first with silence, then disgust. Rubinstein found it “worthless…impossible to play…clumsy, awkward…only two or three pages worth preserving.”


Tchaikovsky’s determination won out, largely ignoring Rubinstein’s feedback. Instead, he sent the concerto to pianist Hans von Bülow, who praised its originality, nobility, strength, and maturity, noting that “this true gem shall earn [Tchaikovsky] the gratitude of all pianists.” Von Bülow— perhaps in need of a challenge following a very public love triangle that did not go his way—gave the world premiere performance in Boston to an enthralled audience. The piece was so immediately adored that even Rubinstein eventually came around. It has enjoyed popularity in St. Louis as well: the SLSO has performed it close to every three years since 1908.


The concerto’s first movement showcases the piano’s capabilities, from upper register twinkling that seems to foreshadow Tchaikovsky’s later ballet, The Nutcracker, to bass-heavy growling, and everything in between. The second movement bears a closer resemblance to Liadov’s Enchanted Lake, a dreamy, chromatic chapter that brings flute and cello solos forward before the piano urges a faster pace. The final movement pulses with energy, nodding to Russian folk tunes. The orchestra and pianist challenge each other throughout, building to an incredible unison peak.


First performance: October 25, 1875, at the Music Hall in Boston, Benjamin Johnson Lang as conductor, with Hans von Bülow as soloist

First SLSO performance: March 5, 1908, Max Zach conducting, with Rudolph Ganz as soloist Most recent SLSO performance: March 3, 2018, Christian Arming conducting, with Rémi Geniet as soloist

Instrumentation: solo piano, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, strings

Approximate duration: 32 minutes

 


Sergei Prokofiev
Sergei Prokofiev

Symphony No. 7


Sergei Prokofiev

Born 1891, Sontsivka, Ukraine

Died 1953, Moscow, Russia


Today, Sergei Prokofiev is recognized as an artistic giant. But during his lifetime, his story was one of dramatic ups and downs. In his sunniest days, he was reworking forms of the Classical era for modern life, creating new idioms, smirking while he pushed boundaries, celebrated by his Russian homeland. In his gloomiest days, his country deserted him, leaving him impoverished, desperately striving to earn back his position in society.


Politics in Europe led Prokofiev abroad: first to the U.S., then France for several years. When he returned to the Soviet Union in the 1930s, he was lauded. During those years, he created several of his best-known works: the ballet and suites for Romeo and Juliet, concertos for piano, violin, and cello, film scores Alexander Nevsky and Lieutenant Kijé, and the beloved children’s fairytale Peter and the Wolf.


Change came swiftly. In 1946, the Soviets instituted the Zhdanov Doctrine, enforcing that all artistic output adhere to their own strict aesthetic ideals or face persecution. Such was the fate of Prokofiev’s Sixth Symphony. Initially successful, within a few weeks Soviet politicians claimed it was full of “contrived chaotic groanings.” Prokofiev was stripped of his pension and left in poverty, his name erased from cultural conversation.


A few years later, still struggling to make ends meet, Prokofiev began work on what would be his final major work, the Seventh Symphony. He created it with the Stalin Prize in mind: an award of 100,000 rubles and, ostensibly, a return to more reliable work and income.


Sometimes called the “Children’s Symphony,” as it was written for the Soviet Children’s Radio Division, Prokofiev strove for simplicity in this piece. The symphony keeps tradition with the standard four movements, and with a casual ear, it might not sound so different from a Classical-era work from W.A. Mozart or Joseph Haydn.


Listen more closely and you’ll hear the composer’s inner world—poverty, hardship, intense frustration with the government. He toed the line between what would pass as “upbeat,” and permissible to the Soviet powers on the surface, while showing his true colors to those who dared to pay attention.


In the lead up to the work’s premiere, the conductor Samuil Samosud convinced Prokofiev to craft a more optimistic ending. This would hedge his bets in the competition and keep him more in line with Soviet expectations. Though he didn’t win the prize, Prokofiev’s happy ending is what was performed and what we’ll hear today.


First performance: October 11, 1952, by the All-Union Radio Orchestra in Moscow, Samuil Samosud conducting

First SLSO performance: March 6, 1981, Gerhardt Zimmerman conducting

Most recent SLSO performance: November 21, 2003, Scott Parkman conducting Instrumentation: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, piano, strings

Approximate duration: 31 minutes

 

Caitlin Custer is the SLSO's Communications Manager.


Program Notes are sponsored by Washington University Physicians.