It is hard to believe, but Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, one of the most famous and popular works ever written for this instrument and whose opening chords have become emblematic of the composer’s music, enjoyed only a lukewarm reception during its premiere performance at the Moscow Conservatoire, and one of the harshest critics of the piece was the great pianist Nikolai Rubinstein. His adverse opinion hurt Tchaikovsky to the quick – he erased the dedication to Rubinstein, bestowing this honour instead on the first ever performer of the work, Hans von Bülow. Despite an enthusiastic reception in the United States, in Europe the Concerto continued to divide opinion. It was a work to which no-one could remain indifferent, and eventually even Rubinstein took to Concerto in B-flat Minor and became an excellent interpreter of the piece, which became a permanent fixture in the concerto repertoire.
The early 19th-century collection of German folk songs and poems compiled by Joachim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano – Des Knaben Wunderhorn – had an enormous impact on Gustav Mahler, which is very much reflected in his work. He arranged selected pieces as songs and each of his first four symphonies (even the instrumental First) includes allusions and quotes from The Boy’s Magic Horn. The Fourth, completed in 1900, closes this chapter – a peculiar symphonic “tetralogy”, full of intertextuality and hidden agendas – by recalling in its finale the song Das himmlische Leben (The Heavenly Life), so delightful in its simplicity. This Symphony stands in stark contrast to the later Fifth (we highly recommend hearing this work for yourself on 29 and 30 April), the musical architecture of which is more traditional, the mood joyful and exuberant, and reliant on a smaller, chamber-like orchestral line-up.
Krzysztof Penderecki worked on his monumental Polish Requiem for over a quarter of a century, and each of its movements (starting from the evocative Lacrimosa, commissioned by Lech Wałęsa to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the tragic events of December 1970) has become a musical epitaph for different figures and events, and at the same time a powerful synthesis of the author’s creative exploration of oratorio music, which was always very important to him.