Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No 1, by Yevgeny Sudbin

Gramophone Mon 5th September 2016

Aiming for lyricism, not aggression, is the key to conquering Tchaikovsky’s Concerto, says Sudbin

When I came to record Tchaikovsky’s B flat minor Piano Concerto, I was worried that there were already more than 200 recordings available and that perhaps 400 recordings in total had been made. That put me off at first, but when I do play such a piece I try to find fresh insights or new perspectives. It’s sometimes very hard to play a piece like this in a way that’s refreshing, especially because the orchestra has also played it numerous times. You get to the rehearsal and they can sound very tired already. That’s definitely a danger.

So the main challenge is successfully to breathe new life into the work. I perceive the piece to be more ‘Classical’ than Romantic – I’m not a big fan of Romantic performances of it. I think the structure has to be very clear, and that, with Tchaikovsky, the simpler the music, the better it is to play it in a more straightforward way, with not too much rubato and quite brisk tempos. It really doesn’t suit the piece to have it played in a very Romantic way. The phrasing is straightforward and you can do a lot with texture, dynamics and decoration without having to change the tempos much.

Less is more

At the beginning, the chords should be played as spread arpeggios, implying a lyrical start to the piece, whereas nowadays a lot of pianists play it in a very bombastic way, as though they were dropping bombs. It’s meant to be broad, not in terms of tempo but melodically – it should be lyrical rather than aggressive. I think Tchaikovsky wrote them to be entirely broken and arpeggiated chords. In my recording with the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra under John Neschling, I break them up a little bit but not entirely. Interestingly, the theme from the beginning doesn’t really come back again, which is unusual. So I guess, from that perspective, it’s not a very conventional piece, but then again there were a lot of other concertos written at that time which didn’t really conform to the traditional structure of a typical piano concerto.

The second movement is quite amazing from the point of view of colour, but the whole of the middle section can, if not played in the right way, sound like a technical exercise. The movement is impressionistic in the French way, with shapes that are not really that clear; I think it is more about colour than about beautiful, clear melodies, of which you have more in the first movement. The flute theme has been the subject of controversy, but otherwise the movement is in ABA form.

I remember listening to recordings of this piece a lot when I was four or five years old and being really fascinated by the whole thing and the last movement in particular. It was a recording of it by Gilels that made me want to play the piano when I was a child. I found it so amazing. Tchaikovsky lays himself bare, and when a composer does that it’s hard for a performer. Sometimes it’s easier when a composer tries to conceal what he’s trying to say, but here that’s not the case: the emotion is almost too ‘in your face’, but you have to interpret it – there’s nowhere to hide emotionally.

Precision matters

There’s a clear structure to this work; the tempos have to be very precise and the fireworks have to happen. Tchaikovsky did, however, make a lot of revisions that deviated from the first version in which (I think) some of the octaves were rewritten. There are places where, even if an orchestra has played it many times, it can still be incredibly tricky – especially the scales on the piano in the last movement, where it never seems to be together. In a recording you can hear when something comes apart much more clearly than in a concert, so we had to spend a lot of extra time trying to fix that passage. Consider the way in which the tempo changes happen: there are many instances when the music gets faster abruptly; this is the hard part because there’s not enough time to think and see which tempo the orchestra’s going to take – you have to get it right from the very first note.

In attempting to make this piece sound fresh, I think some performers’ approach is to try to make it too interesting or too unusual, resulting in something that sounds idiosyncratic. But with this kind of music, which is quite emotional and bare, it helps to go back to the basics, to try to play more or less what’s written and pretend that there aren’t so many recordings. The music can renew itself. That’s the way I approached it and that’s how I would advise other people to approach it. When performers try something radically different, maybe one result in a hundred can turn out to be amazing – but there’s the danger that it will sound dishonest or overthought, or simply as if the pianist isn’t being faithful to the music.

Explore more great piano concertos

Beethoven Piano Concerto No 5, by Paul Lewis

Brahms Piano Concerto No 2, by Nicholas Angelich

Grieg Piano Concerto, by Leif Ove Andsnes

Mozart Piano Concerto No 27, by Angela Hewitt

Prokofiev Piano Concerto No 3, by Jean-Efflam Bavouzet

Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No 2, by Stephen Hough

Ravel Piano Concerto in G, by Pierre-Laurent Aimard

Schumann Piano Concerto, by Ingrid Fliter

Shostakovich Piano Concerto No 2, by Alexander Melnikov

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