Conductor: Semyon Bychkov
Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor, Op. 23 (1879 version) – Kirill Gerstein
Tchaikovsky: Manfred Symphony after Byron, Op. 58
After the hypnotic minimalism of Philip Glass on Tuesday night at Carnegie Hall, I was excitingly gearing up for the full-blown Romanticism of Piotr Tchaikovsky on Thursday night at the David Geffen Hall with my friend Vy An, who was more than ready to check off yet another local music venue, prestigious orchestra and classic hit from her list while widening her knowledge of the classical music repertoire thanks to the "Beloved Friend - Tchaikovsky and his World: A Philharmonic Festival". I mean, if she did not fall for Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 right off the bat, I had figured that all hope would probably be lost to connect her to the joys of classical music.
And that would not be just any performance of it either, but a chance to discover the rarely heard 1879 version, the final one before a student of Tchaikovsky's decided to make it more flamboyant after the composer's death. Luckily for us, Russian pianist Kirill Gerstein has been determined to spread the word about the real thing, and would therefore be in charge of bringing it to the New York audience with Russian conductor Semyon Bychkov on the podium. And we were all extremely grateful for it.
Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 was indisputably instrumental in hooking me to classical music, and if I have since then moved on to appreciating more esoteric ventures, I still get the same irrepressible frisson every time I hear the famous take-no-prisoners opening before happily succumbing to the sweeping power of the entire piece. And if on Thursday night these first chords had a distinctly less bombastic and more lyrical ring to them, they were still as thrilling as ever. No-one in the crowded auditorium could reasonably have turned down this ever-irresistible invitation to what has remained one of the wildest rides in classical music history.
Displaying a poise and a maturity way beyond his years, Kirill Gerstein was totally in charge from beginning to end, seamlessly integrating the original, more logical, but nevertheless less familiar, components into his performance. On the other hand, no matter how more organic and balanced the 1879 score is, Gerstein did not refrain from the expected outpouring of big emotions and there was still plenty of top-quality schmaltz to go around, as it should. Truth be told, his mission was masterfully accomplished also because he was brilliantly accompanied by the orchestra, who were obviously totally on board and whole-heartedly responded to a very much involved Semyon Bychkov.
Looking almost like an after-thought after the superlative piano concerto, the expansive Manfred Symphony turned out to be a wonderful addition to this Tchaikovsky-centric evening. Predictably overflowing with big brassy moments, lush violin passages and exquisitely understated interludes, the performance beautifully illustrated the mysterious setting, supernatural elements and dramatic plot of Byron's epic poem. Obviously very comfortable with the composition and the conductor, the NY Phil delivered a technically assured, musically opulent and emotionally dramatic performance that perfectly rounded up our glorious Russian feast.