For decades, Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto (‘Rach 3’) has been burdened, along with the second concertos of Prokofiev and Bartók, as part of a triumvirate of ‘most difficult’ among canonic 20th century concertos. It’s also one of the most electrifying. Listening to it, we are more prone to be awestruck by the pianist’s technical skill than moved by either the depth of interpretation or a strikingly individual conception.
In this work, Rachmaninoff aspired to be worthy of the 19th century virtuoso tradition in every respect. The last of the great Romantic pianist-composers in the lineage of Chopin, Liszt and Rubinstein, Rachmaninoff also wanted, it seems, to emulate the synthesis between concerto and symphony achieved in the two piano concertos of Brahms.
Until 1996, Rachmaninoff’s third piano concerto was largely eclipsed by its older sibling, the famous Piano Concerto No. 2 – but the gap between the two narrowed with the release of the film Shine. The movie told the story of the Australian concert pianist David Helfgott, who suffered a mental breakdown and abandoned his career for many years. ‘Rach 3’ is used powerfully on the soundtrack and the Oscar-winning success of the film ensured a new audience for this muscular, Romantic work.
Rachmaninoff composed the concerto in 1909 – a full nine years after the premiere of his Piano Concerto No. 2. The third is grander, fuller, and more expansive in tone and style – with the soloist stretched to the very limits of their ability. The soloist whom Rachmaninoff intended to premiere the piece was his friend Josef Hofmann; curiously, though, Hofmann never actually performed it, apparently declaring that the work was not right for him.
Few musicians have successfully followed two musical disciplines with equal success but Rachmaninoff managed three: composer, conductor and pianist. The music came from his father, its nurture from his mother. Grandfather had been a good amateur pianist and a pupil of John Field; Rachmaninoff’s aristocratic father Vassili was also a good pianist. Like many land-owning families at the time, times were hard in the 1870s and, when Rachmaninoff was nine, the estate was sold, his parents separated, and he went with his mother and five siblings to live in St Petersburg. As an aristocrat, music would have been closed to him as a profession. Now, without property or income, he was free to embark seriously on the study of music, for he had clearly inherited the family talent for the piano.
After a couple of years at the St Petersburg Conservatory, Rachmaninoff entered the Moscow Conservatory in 1885 on the advice of his cousin, the pianist Alexander Siloti. Under the strict regime of Zverev, Rachmaninoff quickly developed into a formidable player. He studied composition with Taneyev and Arensky, Tchaikovsky took an interest in the young man’s work and by the age of 19 he had written his First Piano Concerto and the group of Five Pieces, Op 3 (dedicated to Arensky) which include the celebrated Prelude in C sharp minor, one of the most popular of all piano compositions. He found a publisher, his one-act opera Aleko made a considerable impression at its premiere in 1893 and he won the Great Gold Medal for the piano when he graduated – altogether an impressive start to a career.
Then came a profound setback. For two years he worked on the composition of his First Symphony. The premiere was a disaster: the music was derided by the critics and the performance a fiasco, poorly conducted by a drunken Glazunov. This humiliation prompted a period of severe self-doubt and depression. His confidence was boosted by an invitation to appear in London as conductor, composer and soloist (his tone-poem The Rock was given, and the by now inevitable C sharp minor Prelude), but when he returned to Moscow and tried to complete a Second Piano Concerto, his depression returned. Rachmaninoff went to consult a psychologist, Dr Dahl, and after a course of hypnosis, during which Dahl insisted that Rachmaninov would ‘start writing, and the work will be excellent’, the composer indeed was able to complete the Second Piano Concerto. It has become one of the most popular of the genre.
Rachmaninov married his cousin Natalie Satina in 1902. For the next few years he managed to conduct at the Bolshoi (1904-06), compose (if not prolifically) and appear as a soloist.
In October 1906, Rachmaninoff moved with his wife and daughter from Moscow to Dresden. He was the successful composer of two piano concertos, three operas, chamber music, works for solo piano, and several dozen important songs. He was an admired conductor and recognized as one of the great pianists of his — and any — time. Like all composers who have consuming careers as performers, Rachmaninoff found himself longing for time just to compose. The move to Dresden was an attempt to take himself out of circulation, and he chose the beautiful Saxon capital because he and his wife had become fond of it on their honeymoon four years earlier. Offers to play and conduct kept coming in and were by no means all to be denied.
Rachmaninoff decided to accept an invitation to visit the United States. He accepted the offer only after some hesitation, and then only because he hoped that the fees he was promised would allow him to realize his dream of buying an automobile. The composer never dreamt at the time that he would eventually make his home in the US and he would eventually die there. For that tour he wrote his Piano Concerto No. 3. He made his American debut at a recital at Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts, on November 4, 1909, went to Philadelphia to conduct the first performance in US of the Second Symphony, and on November 28, he introduced his new concerto with Walter Damrosch and the New York Symphony. Soon after, he played it again with the New York Philharmonic under Gustav Mahler, another conductor struggling for time to compose. Rachmaninoff’s very large hands certainly came in useful when performing this, the most technically challenging of all his four piano concertos.
Rachmaninoff on Gustav Mahler, who led the second performance of the Third Piano Concerto:
Mahler was the only conductor whom I considered worthy to be classed with [Arthur] Nikisch [the most celebrated conductor of the time]. He touched my composer’s heart straight away by devoting himself to my Concerto until the accompaniment, which is rather complicated, had been practiced to the point of perfection, although he had already gone through a long rehearsal. According to Mahler, every detail of the score was important – an attitude which is unfortunately rare among conductors.
His fame and the success of this visit led to his being offered the conductorship of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He turned it down (the offer was repeated in 1918 and again declined). Then it was back to Moscow.
From 1910 to 1917 he remained there, conducting the Moscow Philharmonic concerts and composing – as well as making many foreign tours, by now world-famous. When the Revolution came, it changed his life for ever. In November 1917 he and his family left Russia for a Scandinavian tour, the catalyst that decided him to make the break rather than live under the new regime. Rachmaninov never returned to Russia again.
When he eventually settled on America as his base, he arrived with very little money. He changed career and turned himself into a full-time concert pianist. This involved an extraordinary amount of work – he had a small repertoire compared with most pianists – but, by specialising in the sort of music the public wanted to hear (Chopin, Schumann, Liszt and, of course, his own compositions), he made a sensational success. His career as a conductor evaporated (although he carried out many engagements) and he wrote comparatively little music after he left Russia. Instead, he became known as one of the greatest pianists in history.
He bought a house on Lake Lucerne in Switzerland – his grandmother’s house on the banks of the River Volchov had engendered a lifelong love of rivers and boats – and made annual tours of Europe. In 1935 he decided to make New York his home, later settling in Los Angeles. His home there was an exact replica, down to the food and drink, of the home he had left in Moscow. Composition gradually became more and more difficult for him but he continued to play in public until a month before his death from cancer, a few weeks after becoming an American citizen. He was buried in the Kensico Cemetery in New York.
In all his works for piano and orchestra, Rachmaninoff invented arresting beginnings. In the First and Fourth concertos he is aggressive, outright combative. The Second emerges from a famous series of groping, tolling chords. In the first measures of the Third Concerto we find a quality we do not usually associate with Rachmaninoff — simplicity. For two measures, clarinet, bassoon, horn, timpani, and muted strings set up a pulse against which the piano sings a long and quiet melody, the two hands in unison, as in a piano duet by Schubert. It is a lovely inspiration, that melody unfolding in subtle variation, just a few notes being continuously redisposed rhythmically. Once only, to the extent of a single eighth note, the melody exceeds the range of an octave; most of it stays within a fifth, and that narrowness of gamut contributes to our sense that this is profoundly and unmistakably Russian. Rachmaninoff told the musicologist Joseph Yasser that the theme had come to him “ready‑made” and had in effect “written itself”, an impression and observation not at all inconsistent with Yasser’s later discovery of a close relationship to a Russian liturgical chant, Thy Tomb, O Savior, Soldiers Guarding.
The accompaniment cost Rachmaninoff considerable thought and trouble. He was thinking, he told Yasser, of the sound of piano with orchestra, of singing the melody on the piano “as a singer would sing it, and [finding] a suitable orchestral accompaniment, or rather, one that would not muffle this singing.” What he found invites, for precision and delicacy, comparison with the workmanship in Mozart’s concertos. The accompaniment does indeed not muffle the singing, but even while exquisitely tactful, it is absolutely “specific” — full of character, the fragmentary utterances of the violins now anticipating, now echoing the pianist’s song, the woodwinds sometimes and with utmost gentleness reinforcing the bass or joining the piano in a few notes of its melody.
Such a conjunction of integration and contrast is characteristic of this concerto. The second theme, for example, is first suggested as a kind of twitch in a few wind instruments behind delicate piano passage-work before its formal arrival is prepared by a mini-cadenza and an expansive preparatory gesture in the orchestra. When it does appear, Rachmaninoff presents it in two different guises — first as a dialogue of orchestra and piano, then as a lyric melody. The further progress of the movement abounds in felicities and ingenuities, sharply imagined and elegantly executed. After a thunderous climax, a touching intervention of winds, and a spacious subsidence, the opening music appears again. The leisurely singing of the melody leads with extraordinary compressions to a final page in which fragments of themes ghost by in a startling amalgam of epigram and dream.
“Intermezzo” is a curiously shy designation for a movement as expansive as this Adagio, though it is in fact upbeat to a still more expansive finale. But the Intermezzo itself is all adventure and event, not least the piano’s disruptive entrance, which wrenches the music away to new and distant harmonic ground. What ensues is a series of variations, broken up by a feather-light waltz that perhaps represents Rachmaninoff’s memory of a similar interruption in the slow movement of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1. The clarinet‑and‑bassoon melody of the waltz is closely cousin to the concerto’s principal theme, and if one could scrutinize the piano’s dizzying figuration through a time-retarding device, one could detect that it too is made of diminutions of the same material.
When the Intermezzo gives explosive birth to the Finale, we are again in a torrent of virtuosity and invention. Here, too, the second theme gets a double presentation, first in harmonic outline, solidly packed piano chords against drumming strings, then — in a contrasting key, even — as a beautifully scored impassioned melody for the piano. After that, Rachmaninoff gives us the surprise of a series of variations on what pretends to be a new idea, but is in fact issue of a union between the first movement’s second theme and the beginning of the Finale. In the course of this episode, the concerto’s very first melody makes an unobtrusive, slightly varied reappearance in violas and cellos. That it is once again varied is characteristic, for the idea of repetition as instant variation has been implicit since the first unfolding of that opening melody. Now this idea has become an important part of the means at Rachmaninoff’s disposal as he faces the task of integrating a work laid out on an uncommonly large scale.
The Third Concerto offers an immense challenge to stamina and endurance, the orchestral passages that frame the Intermezzo being the soloist’s only moments of respite. Few pianists would agree with Rachmaninoff’s own estimate that the Third Concerto is “more comfortable” than the Second. Moreover, to a degree truly uncommon for a concerto in the big Romantic bravura tradition, Rachmaninoff sees the soloist not merely as someone who can sing soulfully and thunder imposingly, but as an alert, flexible, responsive musician who knows how to blend, accompany, and listen.
Little bears are very excited to be at the Perth Concert Hall to hear Cédric Tiberghien play ‘Rach 3’ with WASO. They want to compare notes 🙂 Cédric Tiberghien is a French classical pianist of formidable accomplishment with astonishingly agile fingers!
Last month little bears listened to ‘Rach 3’ for four hands…
David Helfgott was a child prodigy whose career was cut short by schizophrenia; after a decade off the rails, he was saved by the love of a good woman, and was taught not only how to live with his disorder, but also how – with astute management – to turn it to financial advantage.
Some of the reviews of his concerts are scathing, but it seemed perverse not to be kind, for behind his weird mannerisms lay poetry in his playing of his favourite music, though somewhat erratically. Critics, especially in the US and UK, killjoys that they are, have dissected his technical shortcomings. Tim Page, the classical-music critic of the Washington Post, wrote of Helfgott’s American debut, in Boston, “A disturbed man who can barely play the piano is suddenly the hottest person in classical music.” Helfgott’s publicists have deftly used such critical pans as a foil; the elite carps, the public adores… Conventional performers seem glumly correct; Helfgott is loose, dreamy, exuberant.
He suffers from behavioural tics like constant vocalizing; the entire concert is accompanied by humming. The reality is that if a member of the audience did this, they would be promptly escorted out of the concert hall. I have seen it happen. Illness is no excuse.
Helfgott rose to the virtuoso challenge of three big Liszt pieces, pausing only to bestow kisses on adoring members of the audience, most of whom, it’s safe to assume, were devotees of the film. The second half of the concert was a two-piano arrangement with Rhodri Clarke of Rach 3. That also allows for astute management of Helfgott’s condition on stage, left to his own devices he might well still be playing encores at 3am. Rhodri Clarke gently escorts him off the stage and puts an end to the concert.
This was the first time we saw David Helfgott in concert. It is unlikely we will attend another one of this concerts. Still, it was impossible not to be touched by his determination and courage, especially when it came unburdened by hype or unrealistic expectations. If he can now make a living playing his favourite works for audiences of attentive devotees, it is a happier ending than anyone might once have scripted.
Little bears have their own special arrangement of ‘Rach 3’ for four paws 🙂