Rachmaninoff at 150: The Towering Third

Sergei Rachmaninoff proofing the published score for his Piano Concerto No. 3. Via Wikipedia.

If you remember the movie Shine, for which Geoffrey Rush won an Oscar, you may remember something of the reputation of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concert No. 3 in D minor. I’m no concert pianist–hell, I’m not a pianist of any kind, so I am in no way equipped to assess the degree to which that movie mythologizes the phenomenal difficulty of Rachmaninoff’s Third Concerto. The film, for which actor Geoffrey Rush won an Oscar, tells the story of concert pianist David Helfgott, whose mental illness was exacerbated by his obsession with the Third Concerto and the work he had to endure to be able to perform it.

David Dubal writes, in The Essential Canon of Classical Music:

The Third Piano Concerto was composed at Ivanovka [Rachmaninoff’s country estate in Russia, a place for which he pined all his life after he and his family fled the country forever in 1917] for Rachmaninoff’s first American tour in 1909. It is terrifyingly difficult, and its challenge has become a legend among pianists. Only a hero of the keyboard should think of working on this exhausting piece, with its huge load of notes and dense harmonies. The pianist Gary Grafmann wishes he had learned it as a youngster, stating that “probably the only time when I could have learned that magnificent knucklebreaker would have been when I was still too young to know fear.” The work also needs a superlative interpreter who can fully project the almost unbearable nostalgia of Rachmaninoff’s lost Russia.

The Concerto’s first performance was conducted by Walter Damrosch, but the second was conducted by no less a figure than Gustav Mahler, then in the days of his ill-fated stint atop the New York City musical world. Even so the Third Concerto languished somewhat in popularity behind the wonderful Second, until Vladimir Horowitz came along and championed the Third with all his unique star power.

By the time Rachmaninoff was writing this work, his musical eye was focused entirely backward. Russia had not yet entered the throes of its revolutionary phase, but the cracks were certainly showing; and in the arts, Rachmaninoff was already the last of the living Russian Romantics, with Tchaikovsky gone, Rimsky-Korsakov in his last days, and the remaining “old guard” quickly aging out. Stravinsky was already pushing his Modernist vision, Sergei Prokofiev was coming of age, and though he was still a child, Dmitri Shostakovich was on his way. And in a world of his own stood Alexander Scriabin, by the 1900s and 1910s becoming more and more devoted to his own mystical vision of a world transformed by his own music.

Rachmaninoff had not left Russia by this time, but he could sense the ending of an era and the shifting of the world into something he felt ill-at-ease to recognize. Thus his music stands at odd contrast with what his contemporaries were producing…but for all that, the audiences remained on his side, for the most part; the Third Concerto, with its soaring melodies and thrilling pianistic pyrotechnics, is still a rollicking, thrilling listen.

Bonus: here’s a video that excerpts 30 different pianists, starting with Rachmaninoff himself, as they all play the exact same passage of wicked difficulty. The level of precision dexterity required to successfully navigate that passage, and make it sound good, is just mind-bending:


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2 Responses to Rachmaninoff at 150: The Towering Third

  1. Roger says:

    Not only did I see Shine in the cinema – the way film should be seen, IMO – I bought the soundtrack album.

  2. Roger says:

    I JUST listened to the 30 pieces; I’m exhausted. I’m going to take a nap.

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