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Length: 34 minutes
Despite the advocacy of generations of Russian pianists of the caliber of Grigory Ginsburg, Sviatoslav Richter, Shura Cherkassky, and now Mikhail Pletnev, Tchaikovsky's "Grand Sonata," Op. 37, has never secured a place in the standard concert repertory. It is most frequently criticized as being pianistically awkward - an orchestral conception contained for the solo instrument or a demonstration of the composer's unfamiliarity with virtuoso piano technique. That the First Piano Concerto's keyboard writing went through two revisions under the guidance of prominent pianist-consultants is adduced as evidence of a weakness in Tchaikovsky's technical skills.
But we know that Tchaikovsky was a talented pianist, at least in his student days. Liszt's fantasy on themes from Lucia di Lammermoor served as his graduation piece, and he maintained a lifelong affinity for the piano music of Schumann. Never completely convinced that the extremes of virtuoso innovations were of real artistic value, Tchaikovsky is more likely to have written his Sonata (his only mature completed work to bear that name) precisely in the manner he intended. Any challenges that the piano writing inflicts upon the performer are more a call to the pianist's creativity than a sign of compositional inadequacy, and past champions of the work have resisted the temptation to make drastic alterations.
Tchaikovsky started work on the Sonata during the fertile period following the collapse of his marriage. Freed, at least for the time being, from the painful charade, the composer left Russia for Switzerland with his brother Anatoly. Before his return to Moscow some six months later, Tchaikovsky would complete his Fourth Symphony and the opera Eugene Onegin, and would begin work on the Grand Sonata and, mere days later, the Violin Concerto. In a letter, again to von Meck, he writes:
"The Sonata and the Concerto are absorbing me greatly. For the first time in my life I have started another composition before finishing the one I was working on."
By the end of April 1878 the Sonata was complete and offered for publication in August with a dedication to the German pianist Karl Klindworth. The first performance was not to take place for more than a year. Nikolai Rubinstein would give the premiere in Moscow on October 21, 1879 to great acclaim.
The marching opening of the Moderato e risoluto first movement announces the huge scale of the Sonata. A contrasting yearning theme follows, leading into an almost improvisatory development. The march returns for a sonorous coda.
The second movement Andante is the emotional core of the Sonata. A succession of nocturne-like themes achieves a sorrowful mood akin to Chopin or Tchaikovsky's admired Schumann. It is difficult here, as it is with the Dumka, to resist attaching biographical significance to the music, but in contrast to the later work, a certain air of serenity and play never allows the music to retreat into bleakness.
If anything, the flashing Scherzo third movement should put to rest any lingering suspicions that Tchaikovsky was incapable of writing idiomatically and virtuosically for the piano. It rushes into a Finale that resonates with orchestral textures. Sustaining the immense momentum of this concluding movement requires the complete musical and emotional investment of the performer, to say nothing of sovereign technique.
-- Grant Hiroshima is Executive Director of a private foundation in Chicago and the former Director of Technology Development for the Los Angeles Philharmonic.