In the 19th century concert musicians generally created most of their virtuoso repertoires for themselves. Fantaisies, potpourris, variations and quadrilles on themes by other composers flowed as if from a horn of plenty. What has survived the test of time is not the tip of the iceberg, but rather the snow on that tip. Among the fifty-four opuses by violinist and composer Pablo de Sarasate one may find the potpourri Canciones rusas on themes by Kashin and Gurilyov, an arrangement of the Jota aragonesa, fantaisies on themes from the operas Don Giovanni, Faust, La forza del destino and many more besides. The Fantaisie on themes from Carmen (Op. 25, 1882) owes its long life to the exceptional popularity of the opera by Bizet. Without resorting to any contrivances, the Fantaisie comprises the most famous highlights of Carmen, though it poses great complexities for the soloist and allows us to form an impression of the performing skills of the Spanish violinist. Based on themes by the French composer, the composition – however paradoxically – remains the most standard repertoire work of all of de Sarasate’s “Spanish” music, notably outstripping Spanish Dances, Caprice basque and Serenata andaluza.
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!