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Piano Concerto No. 2 in G, Opus 44

Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s rarely performed Piano Concerto No. 2, written for his friend Nikolai Rubinstein, who died before he could play it, is unusual in featuring solo violin and cello along with the piano in the second movement.

Quick Facts

  • Composer's life: Born May 7, 1840, at Votkinsk, Vyatka Province, Russia; died November 6, 1893, in St. Petersburg
  • Year completed: 1880
  • First performance: New York City, November 12, 1881, New York Philharmonic conducted by Theodore Thomas with soloist Madeline Schiller
  • First BSO performance: February 5, 1898, Emil Paur conducting, with Alexander Siloti as soloist
  • Approximate duration: 45 minutes

The score of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 2 calls for solo piano, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings (first and second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses).

“I have started writing a piano concerto in a leisurely sort of way. I only work in the mornings before lunch, but composition is something of an effort. I do not feel any great desire to write but experience on the other hand has shown that I cannot live without work…. Health excellent, sleep good.”

So wrote Tchaikovsky in a letter to his brother Anatoly on October 29, 1879, from Kamenka in Ukraine. After her marriage in 1860, his beloved sister Alexandra (Sasha) lived at her husband’s bucolic estate near Kamenka, in central Ukraine, where Tchaikovsky frequently spent long periods of time. Kamenka (Kamianka in Ukrainian) was known as a resort and artists’ colony, and over the years had attracted (besides Tchaikovsky) such Russian cultural luminaries as Catherine II’s lover Grigory Potemkin and poet Alexander Pushkin. Kamenka became a kind of second home and refuge for the chronically wandering composer. Many of his major symphonic and operatic works were created there in whole or in part, including the Symphony No. 2 (Little Russian, or Ukrainian), the opera Eugene Onegin, and the Piano Concerto No. 2.

Tchaikovsky completed the sketch for the long first movement in Kamenka before leaving for Moscow. While there, he heard his friend Nikolai Rubinstein give a “magnificent” performance of his new G major piano sonata. This inspired him to dedicate the new concerto to Rubinstein, who had also conducted the premiere of Eugene Onegin a few months earlier. By this time, Tchaikovsky had apparently forgiven Rubinstein for his savage criticism in 1875 of the First Piano Concerto, which he had denounced as “trivial,” vulgar, and exhibitionistic. After it became popular with audiences, however, Rubinstein had reversed course and added the Concerto to his repertoire, becoming the first in a long line of virtuosi who helped to make it one of the most frequently performed (if not the most frequently performed) piano concertos in the classical repertoire, and one of Tchaikovsky’s most beloved works.

From Moscow Tchaikovsky travelled to Europe, continuing work on the Concerto in Paris and Rome. By late February he had made a complete sketch and wrote to his publisher Pyotr Jurgenson, “I am very pleased and self-satisfied about this concerto, but what lies ahead—I cannot say.”

Tchaikovsky returned to Kamenka in April and completed the orchestration there. Eager for a performance, he sent the score to Rubinstein and to his former student Sergei Taneyev, who had given the Moscow premiere of the First Piano Concerto under Rubinstein’s direction. Taneyev replied that “there was absolutely nothing to be changed.” Rubinstein was less enthusiastic in a letter to Tchaikovsky. “I played it through with Taneyev the other day and I would only say that it seemed, at first sight, strange to me that the piano part is so episodic and mostly in dialogue with the orchestra, and not enough in the foreground over the accompaniment of the orchestra. But as I say all this having scarcely played the concerto once through, perhaps I am wrong.”

Sadly, Tchaikovsky would never hear Rubinstein perform the piece, for the virtuoso pianist and conductor, one of the major figures in 19th-century Russian music, died suddenly in Paris in March 1881 at the early age of 45. The responsibility of introducing the Concerto now fell to Taneyev. But as had been the case six years earlier with the First Concerto (premiered by Hans van Bülow in Boston), the world premiere in fact took place in the United States, this time in New York. Taneyev gave the Russian premiere six months later at the first concert of the Industrial and Cultural Exhibition.

Reviews were favorable. In a letter to Tchaikovsky written one month later, however, Taneyev expressed reservations he said were shared by others about the excessive length of the first two movements and the prominence of the violin and cello in the Andante at the expense of the piano part. In 1888, apparently responding to Taneyev’s criticisms, Tchaikovsky made three small cuts for a series of performances he conducted with soloist Vasily Sapellnikov.

Pianist and composer-conductor Alexander Siloti (a future professor at New York City’s Juilliard School, and soloist in the Boston Symphony’s first performance of the Concerto No. 2, in 1898) made more extensive editorial changes for Jurgenson’s planned republication of the score. But Siloti not only made cuts; he revised and simplified the piano part and altered the formal structure of the first two movements. Tchaikovsky strongly disapproved of some of the changes, especially those proposed for the enormous cadenza that occurs in the middle—rather than as expected at the end—of the first movement. Tchaikovsky told Jurgenson that Siloti “is overdoing it in his desire to make this concerto easy, and wants me to literally mutilate it for the sake of simplicity.” Jurgenson agreed, but Tchaikovsky died before the revised score appeared in 1897—in Siloti’s unauthorized version. Today, most performances, including the present one by the BSO, use Tchaikovsky’s original version published by Jurgenson in 1881.

By far the longest of the concerto’s three movements, the Allegro brilliante opens with a forthright orchestral statement of the martial main subject, which is immediately taken up by the piano. This theme has a formal, processional quality, almost like ballroom music, moving stepwise from the tonic G. No sooner has the tender, lyrical second theme in E-flat major appeared in the woodwinds (with string tremolo underneath) than it is taken up by the piano solo. The piano and orchestra play often separately in an episodic structure, with brilliant mini-cadenzas for the keyboard sprinkled throughout. But the centerpiece is a knuckle-twisting six-minute cadenza that comes much earlier than expected, serving as the second part of the development section and the climax of the first movement. What follows is more repetition of the two themes in turn by piano and orchestra.

What surprises many observers about the Andante non troppo in D major is how little music goes to the piano. So prominent are the violin and cello parts, both solo and in duet, that the movement becomes almost a triple concerto. But the heartfelt melody that Tchaikovsky uses for a charming series of chamber-style variations (with another piano cadenza in the middle) has the clear stamp of his nostalgic, slightly sentimental musical personality, heard in fuller expression in the recently completed Eugene Onegin.

For the rapid-fire finale, Tchaikovsky adopts what several critics have labeled a “Schumannesque” approach, with a characteristic dotted 2/4 rhythm. Three carnivalesque themes rush by in a sort of modified rondo form without extensive development. This movement does feature much greater integration of the piano and orchestra parts, and is the only one lacking a cadenza.

Like so much of Tchaikovsky’s music, the Second Piano Concerto makes one want to dance. In 1941, Russian-American choreographer George Balanchine created a work called Ballet Imperial based on the piece (as “abridged, rewritten and rearranged by Alexander Siloti”) for the American Ballet Caravan. Balanchine described it as a “tribute to St. Petersburg, [the French ballet master] Petipa, and Tchaikovsky, set in the grandeur of a palace, the scenic view suggesting the splendors of the Imperial capital of Russia.” First staged at the Teatro Municipal in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on June 25, 1941, Ballet Imperial remained in the repertoire of the New York City Ballet for many years, revised and retitled as Piano Concerto No. 2 and Tschaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2. In Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky, a book of interviews with Balanchine compiled by Solomon Volkov, Balanchine (who had set many ballets to Tchaikovsky scores) remarked that the Second Piano Concerto “may not be the greatest music, but it’s perfect for dancing. After we did it, everyone started playing it. Before, no one played it at all. Now, when I turn on the radio, I hear the Second Concerto more and more frequently.”

Harlow Robinson

Harlow Robinson is an author, lecturer, and Matthews Distinguished University Professor of History, Emeritus, at Northeastern University. His books include Sergei Prokofiev: A Biography, The Last Impresario: The Life, Times and Legacy of Sol Hurok, and Russians in Hollywood, Hollywood’s Russians. He has contributed essays and reviews to The Boston Globe, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Symphony, Musical America, and Opera News, and program essays to The Boston Symphony, Los Angeles Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic, Aspen Music Festival, and Metropolitan Opera.