Sergei Vasilievich Rachmaninoff was born at Semyonovo, Russia, on April 1, 1873, and died in Beverly Hills, California, on March 28, 1943. He composed the Piano Concerto No. 3 expressly for his North American tour in 1909 and first played the work on November 28 that year with the New York Symphony, Walter Damrosch conducting. The composer was soloist in the first San Francisco Symphony performances, in February 1941, with Pierre Monteux conducting. The most recent performance was in September 2008 at the 2008-09 season Opening Gala; Yefim Bronfman was soloist and Michael Tilson Thomas conducted. The orchestra consists of two each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons; four horns; two trumpets; three trombones; tuba; timpani; bass drum; cymbals; snare drum; and strings. Duration: about forty-three minutes.
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. For that tour he wrote the present concerto. 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 this country of the Second Symphony, and a few weeks later 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.
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. (Incidentally, Ms. Wang plays the concerto complete—without the cuts the composer himself made; and, as Rachmaninoff himself did, she plays the first of the two cadenzas he wrote for the opening movement.)
“Intermezzo” is a curiously shy designation for a movement as expansive as this Adagio, though we shall discover that 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.
Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s program annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.
More About the Music
Recordings: Martha Argerich with Riccardo Chailly and the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra (Philips) | Yefim Bronfman with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra (Sony Essential Classics) | Simon Trpčeski with Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic (Avie)
Reading: Reading: Sergei Rachmaninoff: A Lifetime in Music, by Sergei Bertensson and Jay Leyda (Indiana University Press) | Rakhmaninov, by Geoffrey Norris (Oxford Master Musicians series) | Rachmaninov, by Patrick Piggott (Faber & Faber)