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Rachmaninoff - Piano Concerto No. 3

For pianists, Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto stands as the ultimate challenge—the Mt. Everest of the concerto repertoire.

Quick Facts

  • Composer’s life: Born April 1, 1873, in Semyonovo, district of Starorusky, Russia; died March 28, 1943, in Beverly Hills, California
  • Year completed: 1909
  • First performance: November 28, 1909, New York Symphony Orchestra, Walter Damrosch conducting, with Sergei Rachmaninoff as soloist
  • First BSO performance: October 31, 1919, Pierre Monteaux conducting, with Sergei Rachmaninoff as soloist
  • Approximate duration: 41 minutes

In addition to the solo piano, the score of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 calls for 2 each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, side drum, bass drum, cymbals, and strings (first and second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses).

For pianists, Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto stands as the ultimate challenge—the Mt. Everest of the concerto repertoire. Its herculean technical demands, titanic scale (the soloist plays almost non-stop for the entire 45 minutes), and emotional richness scared off such seasoned virtuosi as Joseph Lhévinne, Arthur Rubinstein, and Sviatoslav Richter. Even the pianist to whom it was dedicated, the composer’s friend Josef Hofmann, declined to play it, dismissing it as “more a fantaisie than a concerto.” More likely, Hofmann realized his small hands would struggle to negotiate the widely spread, elaborate figurations Rachmaninoff wrote with his own famously strong hands and long fingers in mind.

The concerto’s complexity at first confused and intimidated audiences and critics, too. In 1912, several years after its premiere, the usually well-informed Sergei Prokofiev, then a 21-year-old budding composer-pianist, wrote to a friend that he preferred Rachmaninoff’s “charming” Second Piano Concerto to the Third, which he found “dry, difficult, and unappealing. In musical circles it finds little affection, and besides the composer no one is performing it so far.” Only when another Russian pianist, Vladimir Horowitz, began to tour extensively did it start to win fans. Hearing him play the solo part for the first time, Rachmaninoff declared admiringly that Horowitz had “swallowed the concerto whole!” For Horowitz, it became something of a signature piece. “Without false modesty, I brought this concerto to light,” said Horowitz. “I brought it to life, and everywhere! Rachmaninoff had not won the recognition with the concerto that he thought he deserved.” Horowitz was also the first to record it, but in the late 1950s, a young and photogenic pianist from Texas—Van Cliburn—further popularized the concerto after his stunning victory at the 1958 Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow.

It’s all the more striking, then, that the Third Concerto emerged from a notably calm and happy period in Rachmaninoff’s life. Eight years had passed since he completed his highly successful Piano Concerto No. 2 in 1901. The preceding year, he had conducted the triumphant premiere of his Second Symphony. He was famous, wealthy, and happy in his family life. For the moment, Russia was at peace. For several years, Rachmaninoff had been spending winters in Dresden and summers at the idyllic estate of Ivanovka deep in the steppes of Tambov province, more than 300 miles southwest of Moscow. In summer 1909, he was preparing there for an extensive and lucrative tour to the United States—his first—scheduled for autumn. With the proceeds he was planning to buy a car. For the tour he decided (at first secretly) to write a new concerto that could showcase his own remarkable gifts as a piano virtuoso. Although afflicted in the past by severe bouts of depression that limited his ability to compose, on this occasion Rachmaninoff apparently worked quickly and easily, completing the entire piece in a matter of weeks. He practiced it on a dummy keyboard on the trans-Atlantic crossing, in preparation for the premiere in New York in late November.

Rachmaninoff’s tour began in Northampton, Massachusetts, on November 4, 1909, and extended through late January 1910. His impressions of America and Americans were not especially favorable. Later he dismissed the United States as “the dollar princess” and complained to a Moscow newspaper that “the public is amazingly cold and spoilt by touring companies with first-class artists.” (Yet this didn’t prevent him from returning repeatedly to the USA in coming years—and even from settling eventually in Beverly Hills.) The tour’s artistic highlight was the premiere of the new concerto in New York on November 28 and 30, with the New York Symphony Orchestra under Walter Damrosch. On January 16, it was repeated in Carnegie Hall with Gustav Mahler conducting. Mahler’s diligence deeply impressed Rachmaninoff: “According to Mahler, every detail of the score was important—an attitude that is unfortunately rare among conductors.” The reviews were good, although the New York Herald’s critic predicted (correctly) that the concerto’s “great length and extreme difficulties bar it from performances by any but pianists of exceptional technical powers.”

In the Third Concerto, the piano dominates from start to finish. This distinguishes it from the Second, where the orchestra figures more prominently. The opening measures show the difference. In the Second Concerto, the piano begins with a bell-like tolling that introduces the orchestra and the main theme. In the Third, the orchestra provides a mere two measures of introduction before the soloist launches into the supple main theme. True, these first two measures contain a memorable gesture in dotted rhythm that emerges as a swelling motto, used throughout the concerto to considerable dramatic effect. The principal theme of the first movement begins on D, and then circles around it, unfolding leisurely over the long space of twenty-five bars. Some listeners have heard a folk origin or even a liturgical source in this elegant tune, but Rachmaninoff insistently claimed ownership: “It simply wrote itself! I wanted to ‘sing’ a tune on the piano like a singer does and find an appropriate orchestral accompaniment, that is, one that would not drown this ‘song.’ That’s all! Just the same, I find that, against my will, this theme does take on a songlike or familiar quality.”

The first movement’s main theme reappears in altered form (sometimes barely recognizable) throughout the concerto, in a manner reminiscent of the Symphony No. 2. The second theme—somewhat military in character—emerges with unusual subtlety out of the first. After an extended development section comes an enormous cadenza—or rather, two cadenzas, occupying five pages in the score. Rachmaninoff provided two alternatives for the soloist in the cadenza’s first part. The longer one (75 measures) was apparently composed first, while the other, somewhat shorter (59 measures) and less demanding, was added later. (The subsequent 21 measures are the same in both versions.) In performance, Rachmaninoff played the easier shorter version. At the Tchaikovsky Competition in 1958, however, Van Cliburn made news by playing the original, longer version, launching a trend subsequently followed by other soloists. But even Horowitz preferred the shorter one, believing that the original was too climactic, like “an ending in itself. It’s not good to end the concerto before it’s over!” (Yefim Bronfman plays the longer cadenza.)

For the second movement Rachmaninoff created a soulful, bleak, and melancholy main theme played first by the orchestra, a phrase falling gently into what sounds like the depths of despair. After thirty measures, the piano enters, initiating a series of virtuosic variations. The last is a Tchaikovsky-style waltz in 3/8 meter. The energetic finale follows without pause. Its themes are closely related to those of the first movement, both in rhythm and melodic contour, and give this immense work an unusual sense of formal unity and coherence. After a brief cadenza toward the end, the piano enters (Vivacissimo) with thundering chords triumphantly restating the opening bars of the first movement. The melancholy gloom of the second movement (and of the tonic key of D minor) now conquered, the soloist leads the way to an optimistic, march-like conclusion in D major.

Because of its length and the extraordinary demands it places upon the soloist, the Third Concerto has often been performed with cuts. Even Rachmaninoff made some cuts for his recording of the piece with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Eugene Ormandy in 1939-40, mostly in the finale. Nowadays the work is typically heard complete.

Harlow Robinson

Harlow Robinson is an author, lecturer, and Matthews Distinguished University Professor of History, Emeritus, at Northeastern University. His books include Sergei Prokofiev: A Biography and Russians in Hollywood, Hollywood’s Russians. He has contributed essays and reviews to The Boston Globe, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Opera News, and program notes to the Boston Symphony, Los Angeles Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic, and Metropolitan Opera.