Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto is one of the most frequently performed works in the genre. The vivid lyricism and melodious expressiveness draw the attention of the public, while the richness of the piano score itself fascinates pianists. The merits of the concerto were not, however, immediately recognised. In 1875, when Tchaikovsky showed the work to his friend and teacher Nikolai Rubinstein, the latter declined the offer to perform the concerto, believing the structure was insufficiently “pianistic.” The concerto later gained renown in a revised version by Alexander Zilotti in which the virtuoso structure of the work was significantly expanded. Today both versions are performed to equal acclaim – Zilotti’s “traditional” version and the composer’s original, in which the virtuoso qualities do not overshadow the unusual melodious richness and expressiveness of the score.
Tchaikovsky dedicated his concerto to the renowned pianist Hans von Bülow, who performed the work for the first time in Boston on 25 October 1875 in Boston. Von Bülow’s subsequent performances in New York and Philadelphia enjoyed even greater success. Two months after the world premiere, on 3 December 1875 the concerto was performed by Sergei Taneyev in Moscow. In one of his letters, he named it the first Russian piano concerto – which was, in fact, true. It was this work that became the first classical example of the piano concerto in Russian music. It is frequently performed in concert halls throughout Russia and abroad, and since 1958 it has formed part of the compulsory programme of the final round of the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow.
When he was already a well-established composer, Johannes Brahms took a long time before resolving to write a symphony. He knew that he would be compared with his predecessors, first and foremost with Beethoven: “You cannot imagine how that giant of a man follows me around like a shadow!” But, thanks to the insistent exhortations of Robert Schumann, in 1854 he made several symphonic sketches. Work then came to a standstill and it was only in 1862, eight years later, that the composer was able to perform the first movement for Schumann’s widow and his dear friend Clara Schumann.
Brahms worked on his First Symphony in C Minor for over fifteen years. In the summer of 1876 the symphony was completed and Brahms put his signature and the date on the score. The premiere took place in Karlsruhe in November and met with relative though not sensational success.
Beethoven’s shadow still seemed to perturb the composer, although any comparison with the former never reduced Brahms’ own glory. Contemporaries noted a strong similarity between the themes of the finales of Brahms’ symphony and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony as well as the use of the rhythm of “fate” from Beethoven’s Fifth. The conductor Hans von Bülow even went so far as to refer to the work as “Beethoven’s Tenth Symphony.”
In actual fact the similarity with the great composer’s symphonies is not so powerful: the tense sense of drama and confusion conveyed by the music in the first movement does not sound remotely like Beethoven: here one can sense the signature of a romantic capable of surrendering completely to the power of his emotions. And the theme of the finale – which has been compared with the main theme of the finale in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony – could only have been written by Brahms: this is borne out by both the noble pathétique and subtle, barely perceptible, hint of reflection that sometimes adorns even Brahms’ most “efficacious” themes.