Rotterdams Philharmonisch Orkest

Programme Notes

Gergiev and the Pathétique

Saturday September 18, 2021
Start: 8:15 pm
End: 22:00
Location: Grote Zaal, de Doelen

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Valery Gergiev, conductor
Alexandre Kantorow, piano
Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra

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Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky 1840-1893 
Piano Concerto No. 2 in G opus 44 (1879-1880) 
Allegro brilliante 
Andante non troppo 
Allegro con fuoco 

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky 1840-1893 
Symphony No. 6 in b opus 74 'Pathetique' (1893) 
Adagio - Allegro non troppo 
Allegro con grazia 
Allegro molto vivace 
Final: Adagio lamentoso 

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Tchaikovsky's unknown Second Piano Concerto 
While the piano concertos of Rachmaninov, Shostakovich and Prokofiev belong to the international standard repertoire, only one Russian piano concerto remained from the nineteenth century: Tchaikovsky's First, and then also in an edition that did not match Tchaikovsky's original idea. Until his death, as at the concert on October 28, 1893, at which he premiered his Sixth Symphony, he himself conducted a version with piano arpeggi as an inviting opening gesture, and not the famous bombastic chords. 

Unlike the above-mentioned twentieth-century composers, and unlike, for example, Franz Liszt and Anton Rubinstein, who were beloved in the Russia of his day, the composer himself did not perform as a concert pianist. Yet the Second Piano Concerto, like the First, is written with extreme virtuosity. Tchaikovsky began working on it in 1879 in his sister's Ukrainian home, a bit to have something to do - there were no official commissions for a while, and he had been able to give up his job at the conservatory a year earlier thanks to a regular stipend from his admirer Nadezhda von Meck. He continued to compose mostly on the road: in Paris and Rome. 

Despite the mostly positive public reception, even after the Russian premiere in Moscow, the piece received a lot of criticism from professional quarters, criticism that still hasn't died down. The piece was said to be too long, melodically unoriginal, and lacking in structure. Whereas Tchaikovsky, just as in his String Serenade from these years, sought structural freedom! 

Although Tchaikovsky also began to have doubts, he strongly disagreed with the sweeping ‘corrections’ that the pianist and conductor Alexander Ziloti made to the work, with extensive cuts especially in the first two movements. Among other things, Ziloti removed the most original finding from the middle movement: the beautiful counterpoint of a violin and a cello soloist from the orchestra. The three soloists even perform as a piano trio, as if playing the melancholy chamber music of the rich salon, which contrasts sharply with the ‘world beyond’ of the orchestra. In the contrasting opening movement and the festive finale, too, the composer largely kept orchestra and piano apart; he considered it impossible for the two to mix, as he wrote to Von Meck. 

Only in 1955 did the score appear as Tchaikovsky must have intended it, and it is this version that is played today. Anton's brother Nikolay Rubinstein, who due to initial distaste put Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto on his concert programs only after long hesitation, was to play the premiere of the Second. He died unexpectedly in Paris. As a result, the premiere took place, unforeseen, in New York. In memory of Nikolai, Tchaikovsky composed his Piano Trio in 1881-1882, precisely for the three instruments that steal the show in the Andante.

Cholera in St. Petersburg and Tchaikovsky's 'Pathétique' 
A simple item in the section 'Mixed foreign news' in the Algemeen Handelsblad of November 11, 1893: 'The recently deceased Russian composer Tchaikovsky was buried yesterday with great pomp in St. Petersburg. The corpse was interred in the Alexander Nevski monastery. Tchaikovsky, who earned 20,000 rubles or more annually, leaves no estate. An honorarium of 1,500 rubles, which he still had to claim, is all the money he leaves behind.' 

The Dutch newspapers of the time report almost daily the number of known deaths caused by the 'Asian' cholera worldwide. In St. Petersburg, too, the virus held sway, and 53-year-old Tchaikovsky was among its victims. His recently completed Sixth Symphony had already had its premiere. It was performed for the second time shortly after his death. The stricken audience now interpreted the work, with its slowly dying final section, as a requiem, as a last tribute to its creator. In the meantime, a fierce war of words rages in the Russian newspapers: how could the ‘poor man's disease’ have felled a man from the highest circles? And had his doctor Bertenson failed in his treatment? Rumors eventually arose that Tchaikovsky had committed suicide by deliberately drinking a glass of uncooked water, because of an unattainable (male) lover or to avoid a public scandal after an affair with a high-ranking member of the court. Still later, this would give rise to the theory that a secret tribunal of former classmates from the School of Law would have sentenced him to death. 

Although it is a great story for an opera, as Peter Schat and Gerrit Komrij proved with Symposion (1989), given Tchaikovsky's standing and the reasonably free sexual morality in high Russian circles, the Socratic suicide is rather unlikely. After all, many in Russia are familiar with Tchaikovsky's numerous homosexual romances, but these, in part because of his high pedigree, are no impediment to his career. Tchaikovsky is the house composer of the state theaters in Moscow and St. Petersburg, receives a state allowance from 1888, and his funeral is personally paid for by Tsar Alexander III. And the man Tchaikovsky? On his deathbed he is still brimming with ideas for new works. Moreover, he had already planned a trip to Amsterdam for March 1894. He would never arrive there, against his expectations. 

The two outer movements of Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony can easily overshadow the middle movements because of their length and impact: the melancholy waltz of the Allegro con grazia - with some unrest in the accompanying Trio (con dolcessa e flebile) - and the Allegro molto vivace, which, like the opening scene of his opera Queen of Spades, combines drama and the childish fun of ‘playing soldier’. 

If the Sixth Symphony, out of dismay at Tchaikovsky's untimely death, was unintentionally understood as a 'farewell symphony' at its second performance, later - especially in Western Europe and America - the stories of Tchaikovsky's love of men, which had been set aside as irrelevant until then, were problematized. Tchaikovsky's last symphony has since seemed impossible to separate from his 'personal suffering'. Yet it is very likely that Tchaikovsky 'simply' wanted to write a highly dramatic symphony. A symphony with a highly original form, though. 

Onno Schoonderwoerd

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