Piano Concerto No 1 was composed by Tchaikovsky over the last two months of 1874 (until February 1875 he was engaged in the work’s instrumentation). It would appear that when working on the concerto the composer showed it to his favourite pupil Sergei Taneyev. This was the response of the young (eighteen-year-old!) student who told his acquaintances: “I congratulate you all on the appearance of the first Russian piano concerto it was written by Pyotr Ilyich.” It is known that Tchaikovsky initially dedicated the concerto to Taneyev, though he subsequently rededicated it to someone else Hans von Bülow who first performed the concerto on 25 October 1875 in Boston. The premiere proved a riotous success. Tchaikovsky wrote to Rimsky-Korsakov: “Imagine what an appetite the Americans have: at each performance of my concerto von Bülow had to repeat the finale.” Soon after (1 November 1875) came the St Petersburg premiere which initially drew contradictory responses. Nikolai Rubinstein, who initially had many grievances and had demands for rewrites (which Tchaikovsky categorically rejected), came to be one of the finest performers of the concerto. Tchaikovsky had an extremely high opinion of Sergei Taneyev’s performance: “I often see Taneyev,” he wrote to his brother Modest Ilyich Tchaikovsky, “If only you knew how brilliantly he performs my concerto!”
One and a half centuries later Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto has become the same kind of “synonym” as the Fifth or Ninth Symphonies for Beethoven. Its strong heroic tone and dramatic pathos are blended with a virtuoso decorative style and, at the same time, with extremely delicate lyricism. The recitative-like style of the melody as in Tchaikovsky’s operas lightly and naturally flows into the rounded “arioso” forms that absorbed Russian and Ukrainian songfulness. The First Concerto is one of those pearls that has become a symbol of world musical classics. Who today would not respond to its “call” the broad introduction of the French horns, the majestic colonnade of the piano chords and the powerful and dazzling main theme of the strings supported by the brass!
Piano Concerto No 2 was one of Sergei Prokofiev’s favourite works. The composer first performed it at the end of the summer season in 1913 in Pavlovsk (when it was conducted by Alexander Aslanov). The premiere was accompanied by a “glorious” scandal: Prokofiev was labelled as both a cubist and a futurist. And he immediately composed a “cubist-futurist” and incredibly complex piano concerto as his calling card: he performed it in London for Diaghilev when they first met, and he selected it for his official debut abroad in Rome in 1915. When Prokofiev emigrated, the score remained in Russia (and has never been found to this day). In 1923 the composer revived it and soon had the concerto published.
Today it is hard to understand what could have scared away audiences in the bewitching first section. Could it be the massive cadenza of the soloist that slowly approaches its culmination, so complex that it is written over three lines (as if for three hands)? The second section, a scherzo, is one of the finest pieces in the “perpetuum mobile” genre. The piano part does not have one single pause! The start of the third section, an intermezzo, deserves the title of “futurist,” although the soloist performs a refined and fantastical theme. And the stormy, unbridled start of the finale is wisely balanced by the gentle middle section in the character of a nursery rhyme.