The second movement contains prominent solos for the violin and cello, making the work in effect a concerto for piano trio and orchestra briefly, though a once-popular edition by Alexander Siloti removed large sections of the work, including those solos.
Also noteworthy is the degree of segregation of orchestra and soloist, especially in the opening movement. Tchaikovsky had told his close friend Hermann Laroche many years earlier that he would never write a piano concerto because he could not tolerate the sound of piano and orchestra playing together. Though he handled this well enough in the First Piano Concerto, he would increasingly intersperse cadenza-like passages for the soloist in the movements of his later works for piano and orchestra. For listeners trying to orient themselves through this concerto, those passages, with their abrupt switch between piano and supporting instruments, make it easier.
By 1879 the First Piano Concerto was becoming increasingly popular. Nikolai Rubinstein had likewise made amends with the composer (after his initial harsh criticism) by learning and performing the work, which added to its popularity. Tchaikovsky felt compelled to reciprocate. He started composing a new piano concerto in October while staying with his sister in Kamenka. He wrote to his patroness, Nadezhda von Meck, "I want to dedicate it [the new work] to N. G. Rubinstein in recognition of his magnificent playing of my First Concerto and of my Sonata, which left me in utter rapture after he performed it for me in Moscow."
The writing went quickly. By the following March, Tchaikovsky had completed the concerto and orchestrated it. Still, he was concerned about Rubinstein's reaction, writing again to von Meck, "I tremble at the thought of the criticisms I may again hear from Nikolai Grigoryevich, to whom this concerto is dedicated. Still, even if once more he does criticise yet nevertheless goes on to perform it brilliantly as with the First Concerto, I won't mind. It would be nice, though, if on this occasion the period between the criticism and the performance were shorter. In the meantime I am very pleased and self-satisfied about this concerto, but what lies ahead—I cannot say."
The composer need not have worried. Rubinstein's reaction was this time understandably cautious. He suggested tactfully that perhaps the solo part was episodic, too much engaged in dialogue with the orchestra than standing in the foreground, but adding, "... as I say all this, having scarcely played the concerto once through, perhaps I am wrong." Tchaikovsky rejected Rubinstein's criticism, but without any rancour whatsoever. In fact, when Tchaikovsky received news of Rubinstein's death in March 1881, he was devastated and left immediately from Paris to attend the funeral. The first Russian performance was entrusted to Tchaikovsky's friend and former pupil Sergei Taneyev, but the concerto had its world premiere in November 1881 in New York, with the pianist Madeline Schiller.