On this date in 1909 Sergei Rachmaninoff’s piano concerto number 3 in D minor (affectionately known as Rach 3) was first performed by Rachmaninoff himself with the now-defunct New York Symphony Society, Walter Damrosch conducting, at the New Theater (later rechristened the Century Theater). Rach 3 has the, well-deserved, reputation of being one of the most technically challenging piano concertos in the standard classical repertoire. Here’s a recording of Vladimir Horowitz who is largely responsible for making Rach 3 as popular as it is today:
Rachmaninoff played the concerto again on January 16, 1910 under the baton of Gustav Mahler, which Rachmaninoff treasured because of Mahler’s famous attention to detail. Rachmaninoff wrote:
At that time Mahler was the only conductor whom I considered worthy to be classed with Nikisch. He devoted himself to the concerto until the accompaniment, which is rather complicated, had been practiced to perfection, although he had already gone through another long rehearsal. According to Mahler, every detail of the score was important — an attitude too rare amongst conductors. … Though the rehearsal was scheduled to end at 12:30, we played and played, far beyond this hour, and when Mahler announced that the first movement would be rehearsed again, I expected some protest or scene from the musicians, but I did not notice a single sign of annoyance. The orchestra played the first movement with a keen or perhaps even closer appreciation than the previous time.
Rach 3 generally follows the classical, standard form for a concerto. It has three movements:
- Allegro ma non tanto (D minor)
The first movement involves a first theme, a diatonic melody, that resonates throughout, and a second theme in B♭ major, that drifts in and out. The movement reaches a number of ferocious climaxes, especially in the cadenza. Rachmaninoff wrote two versions of this cadenza: the chordal original, which is commonly notated as the ossia, and a second one with a lighter, toccata-like style. Both cadenzas lead into a quiet solo section where the flute, oboe, clarinet and horn restate the first theme of the exposition, accompanied by delicate arpeggios in the piano. The cadenza then ends quietly, but the piano alone continues to play a quiet development of the exposition’s second theme in E♭ major before leading to the recapitulation, where the first theme is restated by the piano, with the orchestra accompanying, closing with a quiet, rippling coda reminiscent of the second theme.
- Intermezzo: Adagio (D minor → F♯ minor → D♭ major → B♭ minor → F♯ minor → D minor)
The second movement has two themes, moving from minor to major in a series of developments and recapitulations before the first theme from the first movement re-emerges. The movement is closed by the orchestra in a manner similar to the introduction, but then the piano gets the last word with a short cadenza-like passage which moves into the last movement without pause.
- Finale: Alla breve (D minor → D major)
The third movement is quick and vigorous, containing variations on many of the themes that are used in the first movement. However, after the first and second themes it diverges from the regular sonata-allegro form. There is no conventional development; that segment is replaced by a lengthy digression using the major key of the third movement’s first theme, which leads to the two themes from the first movement. After the digression, the movement recapitulation returns to the original themes, building up to a toccata climax somewhat similar but lighter than the first movement’s ossia cadenza and accompanied by the orchestra. The movement concludes with a triumphant and passionate second theme melody in D major. The piece ends with the same four-note as both Rachmaninoff’s second concerto and second symphony: claimed by some critics as his “musical signature.”
Rachmaninoff, under pressure, and hoping to make his work more popular, authorized several cuts in the score, to be made at the performer’s discretion. These cuts, particularly in the second and third movements, were commonly taken in performance and recordings during the initial decades following the concerto’s publication, particularly by Horowitz. More recently, it has become commonplace to perform the concerto without cuts.
Rachmaninoff composed the concerto at his wife’s family’s country estate, Ivanovka, where he often retired to have the serenity to compose in peace; completing it on September 23, 1909.
The concerto is respected, even feared, by many pianists. Josef Hofmann, the pianist to whom the work is dedicated, never publicly performed it, saying that it wasn’t for him – presumably meaning he was afraid to play it. Gary Graffman lamented he had not learned this concerto as a student, when he was “still too young to know fear.” Due to time constraints, Rachmaninoff himself could not practice the piece while in Russia. Instead, he practiced it on a silent keyboard that he brought with him while en route to the United States.
I am not a pianist, so I cannot speak to the technical difficulties of the piece. It is often called the K2 of the piano repertoire, K2 being the second highest peak in the world, but the most dangerous mountain to climb: killing one in four people who attempt to reach the summit. Some players or commentators claim that the technical difficulty of the piece derives from the fact that Rachmaninoff had abnormally large hands’ with very long fingers, and may also have had Marfan syndrome, meaning that he had unusually flexible joints. From thumb to little finger he could span a major 13th (an average player can span an octave — that is, perfect 8th).
While Rachmaninoff’s physical peculiarities are a matter of record, they do not, in and of themselves, explain the technical difficulties of the piece. Django Reinhardt played amazing guitar solos using only two fingers on his left hand because the others were paralyzed. I’m not saying that Reinhardt and Rachmaninoff are comparable in any way; merely pointing out that you do not have to be a genetic freak to play difficult piano passages – but you do have to work hard at it.
The movie Shine (1996), concerning the life trials of the Australian pianist David Helfgott, features the concerto, and is responsible for giving it the nickname Rach 3. It contains this dialog between Helfgott and his teacher, Cecil Parks:
Parkes: Rachmaninov? Are you sure?
David: Kind of. I’m not really sure about anything.
Parkes: The Rach 3. It’s monumental.
David: It’s a mountain. The hardest piece you could everest play.
Parkes: No one’s ever been mad enough to attempt the Rach Three.
David: Am I mad enough, professor? Am I?
In my amateur opinion, I would venture to say that the Rach 3 is not so very different from many other technically difficult piano pieces in that it’s not just a matter of getting the notes right, but doing them justice.
Rachmaninoff often has the reputation these days for being a rather lugubrious presence because he was tall (6’ 6”/198 cm) and thin, and given to long bouts of depression, especially following poor receptions of his works. But his friends always tempered this judgment by saying that he loved good food, and was a rollicking dinner companion. He and Stravinsky were good friends, despite their radically different musical visions, and often dined together in Russia, leading to one of those tales that musicians love to tell about the famous. One night, Stravinsky had gone to bed late after working on his orchestral suite, “Four Norwegian Moods,” and, as he was dozing off, he was startled by footsteps on the porch outside. A minute later, Rachmaninoff was towering over his bed carrying a huge jar of natural honey. A few nights previously, over a meal, Stravinsky had mentioned how much he loved honey, so Rachmaninoff felt compelled to bring some round, regardless of the hour.
I also have a newspaper clipping from a reporter in Texas who interviewed Rachmaninoff over dinner when he was on tour. The reporter notes that Rachmaninoff ordered lobster salad in avocado, seafood chowder, and a salad. It’s a start, and prevents me from digging into my archive of Saint Petersburg recipes. I think that pairing lobster salad with avocado is an excellent idea, but I prefer to serve the lobster and avocado separately (with some lettuce), to able to control the balance of lobster and avocado better. If you simply remove the avocado pit, the remaining hole does not have much room in it for the lobster. Furthermore, I like the lobster meat in lobster salad to contain some nice big chunks.
For four diners I’d start with 1 lb of cooked lobster meat with the claw and tail meat as whole as possible. If you want smaller pieces break it up with your hands, rather than cutting it. Toss the lobster in freshly squeezed lemon juice and add ½ cup of thinly sliced celery. Mix everything together with about 5 tablespoons of the best mayonnaise you can find (or make it yourself). Peel and slice one whole avocado per person. Sprinkle with fresh lime juice, and serve the avocado with ¼ of the lobster salad on a bed of lettuce or mixed greens. Served this way it is a main course.