VIDEO: Jonathan James on Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1

Jonathan James takes us inside the music with Tchaikovsky’s ‘Warhorse’ Piano Concerto No 1.


Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto is often referred to as a war horse of a piece. Its a piece that all conservatoire graduates need to have under their fingers before leaving college. It belongs to their core repertoire. It has big lush tunes and formidable technical challenges. and one of those challenges is the very opening. Fourteen bars of hammer chords. I once asked a concerto pianist what it was like to start a concerto like that and they said it was terrifying, you can imagine that leaping up and down. But it forms the perfect accompaniment to the lushest tune of the entire concerto.

That tune never comes back, its so disappointing, its like you’re given this great cake but just as you go to put the fork in it gets whipped away. Instead it gives was to this very nervy material. Listen to this.

And later on we have this rather tentative love tune. Not quite as confident as the opening theme you heard. It just flows on from there, but I love that rhythm. just nudging. Theres a code for Tchaikovsky’s fiancé in here, listen. D♭, A or to use the german spelling des ah, Désirée Artôt, the name of the woman who said that she was the only woman that Tchaikovsky ever loved. And her songs, because she was a soprano, appear later in the piece as well. So there are little personal touches that you can look forward to. That nervous energy comes up again in the second movement. Its quite surprising we’re on a lovely smooth rowing boat trip in the countryside and suddenly it sounds as if theres a panic attack in the rowing boat or something, and this scherzo like material comes in and then it gives way again. So its these personal touches and these sudden contrasts these sudden unexpected corners that also contribute to the enduring success of this so called warhorse.

So you’ve heard that most people call this concerto a warhorse but do you agree? What word would you use? We’d love to hear your thoughts, so please do comment below or feel free to like and subscribe to these videos. Thanks for watching.

Further Reading

If you would like to know more about Tchaikovosky and the history of the piano concerto, click this link

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