July 6 & 7, 2023: Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 & Symphony No. 3

May 23, 2023

Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor, Op. 30

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)

In writing his Third Piano Concerto to perform on his first American tour in 1909, Sergei Rachmaninoff produced what would become a byword for keyboard pyrotechnics in the 20th century, immortalized in Hollywood “Shine) and in practice-room lore. He dedicated it to his friend, Josef Hofmann, then considered the world’s leading classical pianist. But Hofmann declared it wasn’t for him, and never played it. Not until fellow Russian Vladimir Horowitz came on the scene in the late 1920s did another pianist take it up (“Horowitz swallowed it whole,” Rachmaninoff enthused). Today, the “Rach 3” is a high-stakes staple of piano competitions, with juries ever alert to its perils and rewards.

Because Rachmaninoff was still finishing the piece ahead of his departure for the U.S., he was forced to learn it during his Atlantic crossing, using a “dumb piano” that allowed him to practice in his cabin. When the S.S. Kronprinzessin Cecilie docked in New York, a photographer took pictures of Rachmaninoff’s large hands, which could span nearly two octaves on the keyboard. The composer premiered the Third Piano Concerto in November 1909 with Walter Damrosch conducting the New York Symphony, and played it six weeks later with Gustav Mahler leading the New York Philharmonic. An East Coast tour with the Boston Symphony Orchestra brought several more chances to make an impression.

The opening theme is a haunting melody played in octaves, with accents that shift unexpectedly and phrases that sound curiously off-kilter. Joseph Yasser, a Russian-American musicologist and friend of Rachmaninoff, traced the tune to a Russian liturgical chant, sung at a monastery near Kyiv, but the composer denied any connection. As the first movement progresses, the piano increasingly dominates the texture, culminating in an elaborate cadenza before the return of the opening material in brief coda.

The slow movement, an Adagio understatedly labeled “Intermezzo,” features a pensive introduction before the pianist takes over the rhapsodic body of the movement. In a brief, animated middle section the woodwinds intone a transformation of the opening chant theme over pianistic filigree. A thunderous solo passage in octaves sparks the thrilling finale, in which the piano develops the first movement themes with growing speed and ferocity, briefly offset by tender interludes. The tempo markings tell the tale, increasing from vivace to vivacissimo and finally a presto climax and brilliant conclusion.

Symphony No. 3 in A Minor, Op. 44

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)

In the 25 years following his Third Piano Concerto, Rachmaninoff began a self-imposed exile from Russia in the West and rebuilt his career as a traveling piano virtuoso, grappling with homesickness and occasional health problems along the way. His compositional output dried up for nearly a decade (1917-1926), but the 1930s saw a renewed focus, as he entered his sixties and perhaps began to think more about a historical legacy. He cultivated a more taut and modern style, as evident in the Symphony No. 3, whose length is a full 40 minutes shorter than the sprawling Symphony No. 2 of 1907.

Composed in 1935-36 at his cottage near Lucerne, Switzerland, the Third followed on the heels of the triumphant Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Yet the premiere by Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra in November 1936 brought a divided response: The audience wanted more surging opulence, the critics less. Additional performances did not stem the grumbling. “It has been heard once in every capital in the musical world,” the composer rued, “and it has been condemned in them all. But it’s quite possible that in fifty years’ time it will be rediscovered like Schumann’s Violin Concerto and become a sensational success.”

“Sensational success” is perhaps an overstatement, even today, but the Third Symphony has secured an enduring place in the symphonic repertoire. Like the Third Piano Concerto, it features Rachmaninoff’s unerring sense of orchestral color, starting with a chant-like theme scored for solo clarinet, two horns, and muted cello. This motto fades into silence as the tempo picks up, leading to another plush melody that builds to almost Wagnerian heights. The movement ends with a return of the opening chant motto.

The middle movement combines adagio and scherzo, starting with a solo horn over harp accompaniment that presents the symphony’s opening theme. This transforms into a yearning theme introduced by the solo violin, which is developed at length in soulful passages for flute and other solo instruments. The third movement is vigorous and fantastically scored, with a faster middle section containing a quicksilver fugue. The Dies irae from the Gregorian Mass for the Dead makes an ominous late appearance before the work sweeps to a mercurial conclusion.


Program notes by Brian Wise

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