Rachmaninoff | Piano Concerto No. 3

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Painting by Alex Katsenelson

“Music is enough for a lifetime, but a lifetime is not enough for music.”― Sergei Rachmaninoff

The first time I heard Sergey Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 I was twenty-two years old. I grew up listening to his second piano concerto – it was “my concerto.” And then I watched the movie Shine with Geoffrey Rush and the third concerto became mine, too, so much mine that I’ve listened to it thousands of times (that is not an exaggeration).

This concerto is one of the most technically challenging pieces of music ever composed for piano. Rachmaninoff dedicated it to Polish pianist Joseph Hoffmann, who never performed it in public, saying it was “not for him.” Rachmaninoff was an incredibly gifted pianist, one of the best who ever lived, and thus he was the first to perform the concerto himself, in New York in 1909. One of the early performances was conducted by Gustav Mahler.

Rachmaninoff left Russia in 1917 on the eve of the Soviet revolution and immigrated to the US. For a long time he had to make a living as a pianist, giving 60 concerts a year. Though that may sound like a lot, it is nothing compared to the work ethic of Franz Liszt – another piano-music genius who was both composer and pianist – who at one point in his life gave 400 performances a year.

Rachmaninoff’s life as a composer had a lot of tension in it. He was one of the last composers of the late Romantic era and was constantly being run over by the transition to the modern classical (atonal) music era.

Here is what Rachmaninoff said about modern music:

“The new kind of music seems to create not from the heart but from the head. Its composers think rather than feel. They have not the capacity to make their works exalt – they meditate, protest, analyze, reason, calculate and brood, but they do not exalt.

“I feel like a ghost wandering in a world grown alien. I cannot cast out the old way of writing and I cannot acquire the new. I have made an intense effort to feel the musical manner of today, but it will not come to me.”

Until I read this I had not realized that I have an old (romantic) soul, too. Just like Rachmaninoff, I never graduated to embracing the modern classical music era. And we are not talking about Metallica or AC/DC here; no, but you cannot pay me enough to listen to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Just to be clear, it is my defect – that music just doesn’t click with me. There are a few exceptions – Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2 and Leningrad Symphony, Khachaturian’s Spartacus ballet, and a few others.

Today I am going to share with you many performances of Rachmaninoff’s third concerto, but I’d like to discuss three. The first is by Rachmaninoff himself. Note that Rachmaninoff performs it in 30 minutes (everyone else plays it in around 44 minutes or longer). The second performance is by Vladimir Horowitz, the Russian-born Jewish American pianist who popularized this concerto in America in the 1930s. Rachmaninoff and Horowitz were close friends. They even rehearsed this concerto together, Rachmaninoff accompanying Horowitz by playing the orchestra part on the piano. The third one by Evgeniy Kissin, also a Russian-born Jewish pianist, who is only a few years older than me. This is by far my favorite performance; it’s very dear to my heart.

I really don’t want to sound like a music snob. Let’s make that even clearer. I do not qualify as one. I do not play an instrument; I can’t even read music. I cannot tell the difference between a C major and a D minor key.  I would not even be able to identify the differences in various performances of Beethoven’s Emperor concerto. But maybe this what makes Rachmaninoff third mine – I listened to it so much that I internalized it, and now I have a preconceived notion (right or wrong) of how it should sound.

As I am writing I have realized an interesting dichotomy between composer and performer. The composer creates music, the performer re-creates it. This is where it gets interesting. When Rachmaninoff was performing his third concerto, he was both creator and re-creator.

As much as I love this concerto, Rachmaninoff’s re-creation of it is my least favorite – it is too fast, and it lacks drama, conflict, tension, which to me is the essence of this piece. Rachmaninoff breezes through it, and so does Horowitz. I’ve listened and relistened to every single performance on Spotify and YouTube, and Kissin’s is the one that clicks with me (though there are many other great ones).

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