Although it is often forgotten, many of history’s greatest composers were, by necessity, also performers. Mozart, Beethoven and Mahler premiered many of their compositions themselves, either as soloists or conductors (or both). Their ability to serve as both composer and performer allowed works to be put in front of an audience almost immediately after they were finished, and alleviated the need to wait for a performer to learn the work and pay them to play it. Thus it was that one of the most difficult concertos in the entire piano repertoire was premiered just weeks after it was finished, by a soloist whose only practice time was spent on a ship crossing the Atlantic, using a “practice keyboard” he had brought on board with him. Sergei Rachmaninoff was that soloist, and the New York premiere of his monumental Concerto No. 3 would go off without a hitch in November of 1909. It was the 36-year old’s first visit to the country that would eventually become his home, and the Third Piano Concerto was only one of multiple works he performed as a soloist (19 performances) and as a conductor (seven performances) during his American debut tour. Rachmaninoff occasionally worried that continuing to work in three professions (composer, conductor, pianist) would inevitably mean that he would do none of them well, but the accounts of his extraordinary prowess at the keyboard, coupled with the enduring popularity and reverence for his compositions, have most certainly proven those concerns unfounded.
Critics present at those initial performances of the Third Piano Concerto all remarked on its extraordinary difficulty. The New York Herald noted that “it will doubtless take rank among the most interesting piano concertos of recent years,” but that “its great length and extreme difficulties bar it from performances by any but pianists of exceptional technical powers.” Rachmaninoff was fortunately one such pianist, with especially large hands that could encompass 12 keys on the keyboard, thus allowing him to play some of the most challenging passages more easily. The work continues to serve as a kind of rite of passage for aspiring soloists, who spend years in the practice studio seeking to master its thornier passages, and once prompted American pianist Gary Graffman to comment that he wished that he had learned the work when he was a student, while he was "still too young to know fear.”
Despite the extreme virtuosity which will be a hallmark of the concerto, the opening movement, “Allegro ma non tanto,” begins with extraordinary simplicity. A quiet, restless accompaniment in the orchestra sets up a modest, unadorned melody played in octaves by the soloist. Rachmaninoff repeatedly noted that this unpretentious theme came to him “ready-made,” although musicologists have noted its similarity to Russian Orthodox chant, the sound of which could well have been steeped in the far reaches of the composer’s subconscious. Following this initial presentation of the theme in its simplest form, the orchestra takes it up, and the soloist embarks on a virtuosic embellishment. The mood calms and a tiny march leads to a second theme, this one much more expansive and romantic. A virtuosic development section works into a grand climax and eventually leads to an extended, technically demanding cadenza for the pianist. Solo woodwinds usher the orchestra back in with ethereal snippets of the first theme before the soloist embarks on another fierce embellishment of the second melody. The movement ends as unpretentiously as it began, with a reprise of the simplistic, chant-like melody, followed by the march music, and concluding with three unassuming notes from the piano as the elaborate movement quietly vanishes into thin air.
The opening of the “Intermezzo” movement allows the soloist a moment to recover their breath, as the orchestra presents in full the lush melody upon which the entire movement will be based. The music is tender and unapologetically romantic, in a way that invites comparisons to the music of Tchaikovsky for many. The piano interrupts the orchestral soliloquy abruptly, then embarks on a series of variations on the melody, each more elaborate than the last. Vacillating between fierce, highly chromatic writing and poignant moments of tenderness, each iteration of the melody creates a different atmosphere, the one constant being the unrelenting technical demands placed on the soloist. This movement moves without interruption into the final movement via an arresting introduction that leaves no doubt that we are about to embark on a truly “grand finale”.
Following a dramatic pause, Rachmaninoff launches into an almost militaristic first theme, full of fanfares and highly chromatic, lightning-fast writing for the piano. A second, more sweeping, cinematic melody follows, which will become the basis for several variations and subject the soloist to a series of unrelenting challenges. Scherzo-like variations, requiring pristine accuracy and an extraordinary delicacy of touch, are interspersed with variations demanding fierce strength and unyielding stamina. A brief reminiscence on themes from the first movement provides a dreamy respite from the relentless energy before the high-octane militaristic music returns. Just when it seems as if we have reached “maximum warp,” the tempo picks up yet again and the final coda section begins, with menacing percussion adding to the increasing tension. A final cadenza from the soloist leads to a cinematic conclusion, with the orchestra unleashed to join in the glorious final minute.
At the conclusion of the premiere performance, the New York Herald reported that the audience recalled Rachmaninoff to the stage multiple times, apparently hoping that he might play an encore. Eventually, the composer held up his hands to the audience, indicating to them that, although he was willing to go on, his fingers were not. Modern-day soloists must surely concur. For over 100 years, generations of pianists have been drawn to, and compelled to master, this extraordinary music, and generations of audiences could not be more grateful.