Adapting to the new (and original) Tchaikovsky

July 1, 2015

Gerstein on stage holding flowers

The winners of the 2015 International Tchaikovsky Competition have been announced: 2012 Gilmore Young Artist George Li took home II Prize and a silver medal. He shared the prize with Lucas Geniušas, while Dmitry Masleev took home I Prize and a gold medal. Sergei Redkin and the 16-year-old Daniel Kharitonov took home III Prize and a bronze medal, while Frenchman Lucas Debargue was awarded IV prize.

The Tchaikovsky Competition has a long-standing history within the music world. Known around the world as the “musical Olympics,” the competition began in 1958 and awards a gold, silver and bronze medal to young pianists, violinists, cellists and vocalists. Previous piano winners have included such virtuosos and Gilmore Festival performers as Van Cliburn (whose victory at the 1958 competition became his claim to fame), Nikolai Lugansky and Daniil Trifonov.

George Li performs in the second round of the Tchaikovsky Competition.

Amidst the celebrations, some Tchaikovsky fans are pointing to new research by 2010 Gilmore Artist Kirill Gerstein, who found that the version of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto most often performed is not the one that the composer preferred. Gerstein recently recorded an approved rendition of the concerto, and some critics believe that the competitors should have taken the opportunity to perform Gerstein’s new version in the competition.

“The final rounds of this year’s Tchaikovsky Competition could have been the chance to restore the composer’s vision of his First Concerto to the world on the most public stage possible, but it’s a chance that has been missed – at least so far,” Tom Service wrote in The Guardian. “My guess is that we’ll have to wait until the next competition in 2019 at least for any change to which version of the First Piano Concerto that is performed.”

Music theorist, composer and pianist Sergei Taneyev, who performed the piece with Nikolai Rubinstein conducting in 1875, wrote in 1912 that the “adulterated” version of the concerto was stepping too far away from Tchaikovsky’s ideals. “I believe it is necessary to return to the author’s text, to forget what overzealous editors put in the composition on their own, and to perform it according to the author’s intentions.”

Tchaikovsky himself apparently made changes to the piece after this performance, keeping the structure and musical material very much the same but making the piece more powerful and playable.

2010 Gilmore Artist Kirill Gerstein after his 2012 Gilmore Festival Finale performance.

After that the story is unclear, according to Service. He believes that “the pianist Alexandor Siloti [invoked] the composer’s authority on highly questionable grounds to make substantive changes to the structure of the piece for an edition that appeared the year after Tchaikovsky’s death… [including] a cut in the third movement and altered passagework, articulation, dynamics and scoring throughout.”

“This is not a warhorse, though pianists have enjoyed turning it into one,” Gerstein said of the concerto. The differing dynamics and articulations in Tchaikovsky’s original version provide “a more lyrical and Schumannesque conception of the piece,” he explains. “The editorial changes made to the third version added a flavor of superficial brilliance to the piece which, at the same time, took away from its genuine musical character.”

Service is hopeful that Gerstein’s well-researched version gathers more of a following. “It’s thanks to pianist Kirill Gerstein and his recent recording that the version that Tchaikovsky actually played and conducted can finally reach a bigger audience,” he said.

“Here’s hoping that other pianists take up this ‘new’ (but old) edition and start to turn the tide in Tchaikovsky’s favor so that we can hear the concerto in performance as he knew it.”

Buy Tickets

Did you know? Contributor Circle donors have early access to tickets.

Buy Tickets

All content © 2020 Irving S. Gilmore International Keyboard Festival