16 Feb 2012

Rachmaninoff – Concerto No. 3 in D Minor for Piano and Orchestra

Written by Jeff Counts

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, cymbals, bass drum, strings.

Duration: 39 minutes in three movements.

THE COMPOSER – SERGEI RACHMANINOFF (1873-1943) – Rachmaninoff introduced his brand new 3rd Piano Concerto on his first American tour in 1909, a trip he had been extremely anxious about in theory and hated nearly every minute of in practice. The two New York performances were both successful but the second iteration under Gustav Mahler was the sole highlight for Rachmaninoff, who reportedly thought very highly of the Austrian maestro and his New York Philharmonic.       

THE MUSIC – The Concerto was composed during a peaceful 1909 summer of productivity at his family estate Ivanovka. Among the other important works he produced there during some recent previous visits were the 2nd Symphony, The Isle of the Dead and the 1st Piano Sonata. It is interesting that this favorite creative setting would be linked through the 3rd Concerto with the unpleasant United States experience. In one of fate’s great ironic insults they would be linked again later by the Russian Revolution, an event that would destroy Rachmaninoff’s beloved Ivanovka and necessitate his eventual emigration to, of all places, America. The music of the piece is free of this history of course and though it took a few decades for the 3rd Concerto to approach the popularity of the 2nd, it was clear from the start that Rachmaninoff was treading even more fertile ground as a composer. Aside from the soon-to-be-famous difficulties of the solo writing (much more demanding than the 2nd), the structure and craft of the whole indicate that he was asking quite a bit more of himself as a composer too. Regarding the Olympian virtuosity required of the pianist, Rachmaninoff’s own judgment is baffling. With an opinion that must still find very little support among professional pianists, he held the paradoxical view that the 3rd was “more comfortable” than the 2nd.  Maybe for him, but it is possibly more telling that Josef Hofmann, the work’s dedicatee, never did perform it.          

THE WORLD – The city of Tel Aviv was founded in 1909. Joan of Arc was beatified by Rome. Also in 1909, Ernest Shackleton claimed the South Magnetic Pole and British Petroleum had its beginnings as the Anglo-Persian Oil Company.

THE CONNECTION – Rachmaninoff’s 3rd Piano Concerto has been performed twice in the last seven years, both times under Keith Lockhart and most recently in 2010 with Yeol Eum Son.