Rachmaninoff – Piano Concerto No 3 in D-minor, Op. 30

by Max Derrickson

Sergey Vasilievich Rachmaninoff
(Born in Semyonovo, Russia in 1873; died in Beverly Hills, CA in 1943)

Piano Concerto No 3 in D-minor, Op. 30
1. Allegro ma non tanto
2. Intermezzo: Adagio
3. Finale: Alla breve
After the wild success of his 1901 Piano Concerto No. 2, Rachmaninoff, the pianist-composer-conductor, was thrust into fame and fortune.  And in its wake came countless offers and invitations to conduct, perform and tour, making it increasingly difficult to find time for composing – so much so that he took his wife and children to his family’s dacha (country estate) outside of Moscow in 1909 for some peace and quiet, and time to compose.  But an extremely lucrative offer loomed, enticingly, from America.  Although Rachmaninoff was reluctant to leave his family for so many months, the offer was too much to turn down.  Of particular interest was the prospect of buying a fast, new American-made car – an enduring fascination for Rachmaninoff for the rest of his life.  And so, in the late summer months of 1909, [. . .]

What critics struggled with in 1909 was the Third’s length and complexities, and its titanic technical demands.  The Third is, in essence, a symphony with piano solo – themes weave  [. . .] Technically for the piano soloist, the Third is considered the “Everest” of piano concerti.  Rachmaninoff himself quipped that it was “written for elephants” – [. . .] avoided it:  American pianist Gary Graffman (1928 –) said he regretted not learning the Concerto when he was younger, when he was “too foolish to know fear”; indeed, Josef Hoffmann (1876-1957), to whom the Third Concerto was dedicated and arguably the greatest pianist contemporary to Rachmaninoff, declined to play it.  And as immortalized in the movie Shine, studying Rachmaninoff’s Third contributed to Australian pianist’s David Helfgott’s complete [. . .]

Running typically to 43-45 minutes, this vast Concerto overflows with exceptional musical moments.   The opening alone is one of music’s most unforgettable.  Above an undulating figure in the orchestra, the piano begins the first theme.  Played an octave apart between both hands, it is simple and pure and exquisitely beautiful.  Often described as a melancholic Russian folk song (and eventually suggested to be a variant of a Russian liturgical chant), [. . .]  often barely recognizable.

One of the most clever guises taken by this theme occurs in the longingly lyrical Intermezzo.  [. . .]  Such is the magic this Concerto is made of – clever foreshadows and brilliant moments all along the way, including, of course, several dazzling cadenzas.

Being that the Concerto was meant for his American tour, and knowing that his New World audiences loved to be electrified, Rachmaninoff composed the Finale, at least on its sleeve, as a pianistic [. . .] yet so expertly written as to reveal itself in ever deeper ways upon repeated listenings.