Sergei Rachmaninoff – Piano Concerto No. 3
The Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30, composed in 1909 by Sergei Rachmaninoff, has the reputation of being one of the most technically challenging piano concertos in the standard classical piano repertoire.
Rachmaninoff composed the concerto in Dresden completing it on September 23, 1909. Contemporary with this work are his First Piano Sonata and his tone poem The Isle of the Dead.
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. 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 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.
The concerto was first performed on Sunday afternoon, November 28, 1909, by Rachmaninoff himself, with the New York Symphony Society with Walter Damrosch conducting, at the New Theater (later rechristened the Century Theater). It received a second performance under Gustav Mahler on January 16, 1910, an “experience Rachmaninoff treasured.” Rachmaninoff later described the rehearsal to Riesemann:
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.
The score was first published in 1910 by Gutheil. Rachmaninoff called the Third the favorite of his own piano concertos, stating that “I much prefer the Third, because my Second is so uncomfortable to play.” Nevertheless, it was not until the 1930s and largely thanks to the advocacy of Vladimir Horowitz that the Third concerto became popular.