Tchaikovsky and Siloti

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Painting by Alex Katsenelson

This is a continuation of my series on Alexander Siloti.

Last time we discussed Siloti and Rachmaninoff. Today we are going to explore Siloti in connection with Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1.

At first Tchaikovsky was Siloti’s teacher in Moscow Conservatory; but later in life Siloti became his friend, a performer of his music, and even a proofreader and contributor to Tchaikovsky’s music.

Tchaikovsky was a symphonist; the piano was just another instrument to him. It is important to note the difference between a symphony and a concerto. A symphony may have solo passages, but it is really written for the whole orchestra. Concertos are written for a solo instrument (piano, violin, cello…) and orchestra.

As we discussed last time, Siloti studied under Liszt and was highly influenced by him. In a Lisztonian piano concerto, the piano makes its own stand; it plays a dominant role in the concerto and is not afraid to go against the orchestra. Liszt never lets you forget that the piano is the hero of the story (the concerto). Tchaikovsky did not have the same affection for the piano, and thus he lessened the piano’s role in his concertos.

Tchaikovsky consulted Siloti on the technical role of the piano in his concertos. This is where things get more interesting. Tchaikovsky’s piano concertos that we listen to today are not the versions that Tchaikovsky wrote.

Let’s explore Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto. Most of us think of this concerto and remember the powerful, larger-than-life, piano chords during the opening bars. This is not what Tchaikovsky wrote. His version was gentler, with the piano complementing, not competing with, the orchestra. In fact, that is the version Tchaikovsky conducted just days before his death.

After Tchaikovsky’s death Siloti rewrote parts of this concerto and made the introduction more Lisztonian, giving the piano a more leading role. Siloti’s version is what you hear performed today in most concert halls.

I’ll share two performances, both with Mikhail Pletnev at the piano.

Tchaikovsky’s original version:

The version you’ll hear in most concert halls today, modified by Siloti:

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  • Vitaliy, I enjoy your financial AND your musical views; glad there is no binary choice here. Vladimir Ashkenazy was long my favourite for Tchaikovsky’s First, until I heard a hauntingly different version by Evgeny Kissin. Does the latter play the original version and the former Siloti’s rewrite?

  • Helene Spierman says:

    Wow! The original is much more typical of Tchaikovsky’s yearning quality. The Siloti brings out a bombastic tendency, which also somehow is more anguished.

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