07 Nov 2022

RACHMANINOFF: Piano Concerto No. 3

by Jeff Counts

THE COMPOSER – SERGEI RACHMANINOFF (1873-1943) – Rachmaninoff was, in many ways, the most reluctant of history’s great composer/pianists. Last in a line drawn from Mozart through Beethoven, Brahms and only a few others, he was heir to a demanding tradition that made him an international celebrity. Rachmaninoff introduced his brand-new Third 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.

Sergei Rachmaninoff
Sergei Rachmaninoff

THE HISTORY – The Concerto was composed during a peacefully productive 1909 summer at his family estate Ivanovka. Among the other important works he produced there during contemporaneous visits were the Second Symphony, The Isle of the Dead, and the First Piano Sonata. It is interesting that this favorite creative setting would be linked through the Third Concerto with the United States, a place he did not enjoy very much. Later, in one of fate’s great ironic insults, they would be linked again by the Russian Revolution, an event that would destroy Rachmaninoff’s beloved Ivanovka and necessitate a last resort emigration to, of all places, America. The music of the piece is free of this eventual history of course and, though it took a few decades for the Third Concerto to approach the popularity of the Second, it was clear from the start that Rachmaninoff was evolving as a creative artist.

Aside from the now legendary technical challenges presented to the soloist (it was much more demanding than the Second), the structure and craft of the concerto indicate that he was asking quite a bit more of himself as a composer too. Fans of Rachmaninoff’s glorious tune-smithing need not worry though, for Concerto No. 3 includes one of his most subtly perfect. “It simply wrote itself!” he said of the generous, generative opening melody from which the piece is built. Beautiful as it was, the concerto was too difficult for any pianist but Rachmaninoff, whose own judgement on its demands could be dismissed as an early 20th century humble brag (if he were that kind of person). In his opinion, one that still must find very little support from professional pianists, the Third is “more comfortable” than the Second. Maybe for him, but it is more telling that Josef Hofmann, the work’s dedicatee, never dared to perform it. In Hofmann’s defense, few had the nerve to attempt it in those early years, until Vladimir Horowitz finally proved it possible in the 1930s.

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

THE CONNECTION – Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 has been performed often in Abravanel Hall, most recently in 2019 with Boris Giltburg as soloist and Carlos Miguel Prieto on the podium.