It happens to every music fan at least once. They go to a concert and by the end of it they think: “This is a concert that I’ll never forget.” It’s the concert that will ruin the following concerts because no matter how good they are they’ll just never stand the comparison. Sometimes the stars align and you have the time of your life. That’s what concert-goers must have felt when they heard the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Herbert von Karajan with Evgeny Kissin as soloist perform Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No.1 in 1989 in Salzburg.
The piece is probably one the best-known of all piano concerti and this performance by a 17 year old Kissin contributed to its fame. Composed between November 1874 and February 1875 the concerto was the cause of a famous argument between Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and Nikolai Rubinstein (as the composer himself explains in our exclusive video). Tchaikovsky wanted Rubinstein to premiere the piece but when he showed it to him the reception was very different from what he had expected. Here is how he recounted the event to his patroness, Nadezhda von Meck.
“I played the first movement. Not a single word, not a single remark! (…) Oh, for one word, for friendly attack, but for God’s sake one word of sympathy, even if not of praise. Rubinstein was amassing his storm, and [Nikolai] Hubert was waiting to see what would happen (…). I fortified myself with patience and played through to the end. Still silence. I stood up and asked, “Well?” Then a torrent poured from Nikolay Grigoryevich’s mouth, gentle at first, then more and more growing into the sound of a Jupiter Tonana. It turned out that my concerto was worthless and unplayable; passages were so fragmented, so clumsy, so badly written that they were beyond rescue; the work itself was bad, vulgar; in places I had stolen from other composers; only two or three pages were worth preserving; the rest must be thrown away or completely rewritten. (…) he repeated that my concerto was impossible, pointed out many places where it would have to be completely revised, and said that if within a limited time I reworked the concerto according to his demands, then he would do me the honor of playing my thing at his concert. “I shall not alter a single note,” I answered, “I shall publish the work exactly as it is!” This I did.” (source)
The concerto premiered in Boston in October 1875 with Hans von Bülow as soloist. Tchaikovsky eventually revised the concerto in 1879 and 1888, this last version being usually played nowadays. Other pianists have impressed their audience with it, Martha Argerich for instance. But the Karajan/Kissin performance will always be special to music lovers, just as it used to be to the conductor and still is to the pianist.