"Utterly worthless, absolutely unplayable" ~ according to Tchaikovsky, this was pianist Nicolai Rubinstein's first reaction to his now unstoppable First Piano Concerto.
Performed by Alexandra Dariescu and the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by Giordano Bellincampi
George W. Chadwick, an American composer, heard the Piano Concerto's premiere in 1875, which, surprisingly, took place in Boston.
"They had not rehearsed much and the trombones got in wrong in the 'tutti' in the middle of the first movement, whereupon the soloist sang out in a perfectly audible voice, 'The brass may go to hell.'
This was the first Tchaikovsky piece I ever heard and I thought it the greatest ever, but it rather mystified some of our local scribes, who could not have dreamed how many times they have to hear it in the future."
The soloist in question was Hans von Bülow. How he came to give the premiere in America is most likely thanks to Nicolai Rubenstein, the great pianist and Tchaikovsky's friend and teacher, for whom the concerto was originally intended.
Rubenstein's reaction to his first listen-through, however, was far from positive.
"There burst forth from Rubinstein’s mouth a mighty torrent of words...It appeared my Concerto was utterly worthless, absolutely unplayable; passages were so commonplace and awkward that they could not be improved; the piece as a whole was bad, trivial, vulgar.
I had stolen this from that one and that from this one; so only two or three pages were good for anything, while the others should be wiped out or radically rewritten.
I was not just astounded but outraged by the whole scene. I am no longer a boy trying his hand at composition and I no longer need lessons from anyone, especially when they are offered so harshly and in such a spirit of hostility."
Rubenstein suggested changes, but the composer's response: "I shall not alter a single note; I shall publish the work exactly as it is."
That all happened on Christmas eve of 1874 – Rubenstein obviously not one for the 'festive spirit'...
Tchaikovsky had admired Von Bülow's playing and Von Bülow had in turn written well of the composer's music and perhaps it suited Tchaikovsky that the premiere would take place a long way from Russia for fear Rubenstein was correct.
Romanian-born Alexandra Dariescu describes herself as feeling very 'European'. She has a strong connection with Britain, having spent more than half her life there.
In several interviews she tells of the small upright piano which still sits in her family home in Iasi, which her mother bought her and which sparked her love for the instrument.
"It’s a very sweet Russian make of an upright," she's said, "and it’s just very special to have it there and to think that all of those thousands of hours were spent in front of that instrument."
She later learned it cost her mother 5 times her annual salary.
Tchaikovsky holds a special place for her – over a number of years she devised a work called The Nutcracker and I which is a multi-media performance in which she plays alongside a dancer with a contingent of projected animated characters. Through the Nutcracker music and a condensed story, part of her journey in life and music is told.
The show has toured the globe pretty extensively.
Programme note: Kevin Keys
Recorded by RNZ Concert, Auckland Town Hall, 13 February 2020
Producer: Tim Dodd; Engineer: Adrian Hollay