Piano Concerto No. 3 (Rachmaninoff)

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 repertoire.

The beginning of the opening theme of the Piano Concerto No. 3


Following the form of a standard concerto, the piece is in three movements:

A portion of the original cadenza (ossia)
  1. Allegro ma non tanto (D minor)
    The first movement revolves around a diatonic melody that soon develops into complex pianistic figuration. The second theme opens with quiet exchanges between the orchestra and the piano before fully diving into a slower theme in B flat major. The first part of the first theme is restated before the movement is pulled into a loud development section which opens with toccata like quavers in the piano and reaches a loud chordal section. The whole development exhibits features similar to a canon, such as an eighth note passage in the piano in which the left hand and the right hand play overlapping figures. 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 flat major before leading to the recapitulation, where the first theme is restated by the piano, with the orchestra accompanying, soon closing with a quiet, rippling coda reminiscent of the second theme.
  2. Intermezzo: Adagio (D minor → F-sharp minorD-flat major → F-sharp minor → D minor)
    The second movement is opened by the orchestra and it consists of a number of variations around a single lush, heavily romantic melody following one another without a rigid scheme. The melody soon moves to the tonic major which is the second theme. After the first theme development and recapitulation of the second theme, the main melody from the first movement reappears, before the movement is closed by the orchestra in a manner similar to the introduction. Then the piano gets the last word with a short "cadenza-esque" passage which moves into the last movement without pause. Many melodic thoughts of this movement allude to Rachmaninoff's second piano concerto, third movement, noticeably the Russian-like, E-flat major melody.
  3. Finale: Alla breve (D minor → D major)
    The third movement is quick and vigorous and contains variations on many of the themes that are used in the first movement, which unites the concerto cyclically. 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 rhythm claimed by some to be the composer's musical signature as both the composer's second concerto and second symphony.[1]

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. More recently, it has become commonplace to perform the concerto without cuts. A typical performance of the complete concerto lasts about forty minutes.


Proofing copies of the concerto (1910)

Rachmaninoff composed the concerto in the peaceful setting of his family's country estate, Ivanovka,[2] 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".[3]

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 November 28, 1909 by Rachmaninoff himself with the now-defunct 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 several weeks later, an "experience Rachmaninoff treasured."[4] 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.[5]

The manuscript 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.


The concerto is scored for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, snare drum, cymbals, piano and strings.

Selected recordings

Soloist Conductor Orchestra Record Company Year of Recording Format
Vladimir Horowitz Albert Coates London Symphony Orchestra HMV 1930 CD, LP
Sergei Rachmaninoff Eugene Ormandy Philadelphia Orchestra RCA Red Seal 1939 CD, LP
Vladimir Horowitz John Barbirolli New York Philharmonic APR 1941 CD, LP
Vladimir Horowitz Fritz Reiner RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra RCA 1951 CD, LP
Emil Gilels André Cluytens Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire EMI Classics 1955 CD, LP
Van Cliburn Kirill Kondrashin Symphony of the Air RCA Red Seal 1958 CD, LP
Byron Janis Antal Dorati London Symphony Orchestra Mercury Records 1961 CD, LP
Alexis Weissenberg Georges Prêtre Chicago Symphony Orchestra RCA Red Seal 1968 CD, LP
Jorge Bolet Charles Webb Indiana University Symphony Orchestra Palexa 1969 CD
Vladimir Ashkenazy André Previn London Symphony Orchestra Decca 1973 CD, LP
Alicia de Larrocha André Previn London Symphony Orchestra Decca 1974 CD, LP
Tamás Vásáry Yuri Ahronovitch London Symphony Orchestra Deutsche Grammophon 1976 CD, LP
Vladimir Horowitz Eugene Ormandy New York Philharmonic RCA Red Seal 1978 CD, LP
Vladimir Horowitz Zubin Mehta New York Philharmonic Deutsche Grammophon 1978 DVD
Martha Argerich Riccardo Chailly German Symphony Orchestra, Berlin Philips 1982 CD
Jorge Bolet Ivan Fischer London Symphony Orchestra Decca 1982 CD
Dimitris Sgouros Yuri Simonov Berlin Philharmonic EMI 1983 CD, LP
Horacio Gutiérrez Lorin Maazel Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra Telarc 1991 CD
Yefim Bronfman Esa-Pekka Salonen The Philharmonia Sony 1992 CD
Nikolai Lugansky Sakari Oramo City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra Warner Music Group 2003 CD
Stephen Hough Andrew Litton Dallas Symphony Orchestra Hyperion 2004 CD
Leif Ove Andsnes Antonio Pappano London Symphony Orchestra EMI 2010 CD
Yuja Wang Gustavo Dudamel Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela Deutsche Grammophon 2014 CD

In film

The concerto is one of the main foci of the 1996 film Shine, based on the life of pianist David Helfgott.


  1. http://auralstates.com/2009/06/live-review-preview-bso-season-closer-rachmaninoff-piano-concerto-no-3%E2%80%A6and-summer-music-preview-20090612.html
  2. "Rachmaninov, Sergei : San Francisco Classical Voice". Retrieved 2010-08-26.
  3. David Dubal, The Art of the Piano, Third Edition (2004), Amadeus Press
  4. "Program Notes: Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3". Archived from the original on 2005-04-20. Retrieved 2013-03-01.
  5. recounted in Sergei Rachmaninoff: A Lifetime in Music, p. 164, Sergei Bertensson, Jay Leyda, and Sophia Satina, Indiana University Press, 1956

Further reading

External links

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