Intelligence And Excitement
The MHS Review 376 Vol. 10, No. 16 • 1986
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David M. Greene
"I was not prepared for this stunning specimen of old wine in a sparkling-new bottle. Here is both intelligence and excitement."
The First Concerto, you will recall, is the one Tchaikovsky wrote with his friend, benefactor, and sometime roommate, the pianist Nikolai Rubinstein, in mind. Rubinstein agreed to listen to it. The date was January 5, 1875, and the two stopped off at the Moscow Conservatory on their way to a Christmas Eve party. (No, they hadn't got things confused: Russian Christians celebrate Christmas on January 6.) The composer, a twitter with anticipation, played through the opening movement. Rubinstein said nothing, showed no emotion. Somewhat unnerved, Tchaikovsky went on-and on.
Finally, encountering the same stony silence at the end, he asked his friend what he thought. Not much, replied Rubinstein. There was maybe a good note here and even a nice phrase there, but on the whole it was garbage, and should be consigned to the incinerator, or so Tchaikovsky reported. Deeply hurt, he vowed to publish the thing as it stood-and apparently did, dedicating it to Taneiev, although Hans van Bulow was the one who premiered it (in Boston!). It should be said that Rubinstein later changed his mind and played the work frequently.
My sentiments on the day in question were perhaps not as dismissive as Rubinstein's. (Faced with a monument, I lack that kind of self-assurance.) But tired was what I was. I had heard the thing played, I said to myself, by every Tom, Dick, and Harriet who professed to pianistic mastery, for the last 60 years. And-I went on in my mind-it had always seemed to me windily rhetorical, a mixture of bombast, self-pity, and the requisite soupcon of ethnicity.
Checking out my sense of history, I was somewhat surprised. I doubt that I heard even a theme from the concerto until Freckly Martin turned it into a successful pop song, "Tonight We Love." As recently as 1940 there were only two recordings generally available to the American public: an RCA Victor by Rubinstein (Artur: no relation) and a Columbia by Egon Petri. Irving Kolodin dismissed the first as poorly recorded and the second as "lacking in the kasha, borscht, and t hai of the score." I bothered to seek out neither. My first exposure to the real thing came with the much-touted Horowitz-Toscanini version, which was little short of hysterical. (Kolodin accused the conductor of mangling, lacerating, and tearing the work apart.)
In 1958, as a result of a hassle with the RCA Record Club, I finally acquired a recording (Van Cliburn's) and came to terms with the work. But I was never passionate about it and in my recent mood I did not look forward to submitting myself to Ms. Argerich's rendition. To be sure, I had been impressed with her recent MHS Chopin record (my first encounter with her), and had found myself in good company. But I was not prepared for this stunning specimen of old wine in a sparkling-new bottle. Here is both intelligence and excitement.
The latest Penguin Guide corroborates my enthusiasm, devoting a long paragraph to the details, reserving particular praise for the brilliance and fullness of the recording and for the way in which Ms. Argerich and M. Dutoit strike sparks off each other. Mr. Benko's recent article in these pages indicates that she dislikes having to play the piano. Imagine if she liked it! And perhaps we should all try her alleged diet of yogurt, mineral water, coffee, and champagne!