The Kennedy Center

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

About the Work

Sergei Rachmaninoff Composer: Sergei Rachmaninoff
© Peter Laki

The decade before Rachmaninoff's emigration from Russia was, without a doubt, the apex of his career as a composer. Between 1907 and 1917 he wrote many of his greatest works: in addition to the Third Piano Concerto, the Second Symphony, the symphonic poem The Isle of the Dead, the choral symphony The Bells, the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, and a large number of songs and piano pieces all date from those years.

The Third Piano Concerto was written for Rachmaninoff's first American tour in 1909. The composer never dreamt at the time that he would be visiting the country where he would eventually make his home and where he would eventually die. He accepted the offer only after some hesitation, and then only because he hoped that the fees he was promised would allow him to realize his dream of buying an automobile.

In this work, Rachmaninoff aspired to be worthy of the 19th-century virtuoso tradition in every respect. The last of the great Romantic pianist-composers in the lineage of Chopin, Liszt, and Rubinstein, Rachmaninoff also wanted, it seems, to emulate the synthesis between concerto and symphony achieved in the two piano concertos of Brahms. This is shown by the many orchestral solos that join, and sometimes compete with, the piano soloist, as well as by the numerous thematic links between movements, carefully planned and masterfully executed.

Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto certainly doesn't lack pianistic brilliance (to say the least). But the first two dozen measures of the piano part could actually be played by a child. This is the famous "Russian hymn" theme that some commentators have tried to trace to an old religious chant from Kiev, although Rachmaninoff insisted that there was no such connection. When asked how his theme had been conceived, the composer said only: "It simply wrote itself!..."

The first theme is immediately repeated by the violas, accompanied by piano figurations that grow more and more complex. The changes in texture are gradual, and in less than three minutes, the "Russian hymn" evolves into a cadenza. A new idea is then announced, first in the form of a staccato dialog between piano and orchestra, and only then as the singing second theme that we have been expecting. After a spectacular elaboration upon this theme, the "Russian hymn" returns in its original form, introducing a free development section in the course of which the rhythmic accompaniment of the first theme is always clearly heard. At the climactic moment, the tempo becomes faster and the entire orchestra enters fortissimo on a dissonant diminished seventh chord. Soon the pianist launches into the second and main cadenza. Rachmaninoff later replaced his original cadenza with an even bigger one, but he preferred to play the first version. (The printed score contains both cadenzas, which in fact differ only in their first halves.) The cadenza includes an accompanied portion with haunting wind solos recalling the "Russian hymn," and a fantasy, for piano alone, upon the singing second theme. Therefore, the cadenza effectively functions as the movement's recapitulation, and all that is needed afterward is a brief coda. The coda states the "Russian hymn" in its original form one last time, followed by the first staccato version of the second theme that has been heard in this form only once before. The repeat of this almost-forgotten detail at the end shows that a good composer wastes nothing, and every detail finds its place in the larger structure. The formal design of the movement is, in fact, quite original, by no means as conservative as Rachmaninoff is often made out to be.

The second-movement Intermezzo opens with an orchestral introduction that gives the pianist the only respite in the entire concerto. The soulful melody, presented in turn by woodwinds and strings, is subsequently taken over by the piano and is considerably intensified in the process. (One of the transitional passages from the first movement, a descending sequence in thirds, is recalled by the solo piano, with the addition of some sensuous chromatic harmonies.) The virtuoso figurations surrounding the theme form a bridge to the next section, a brief scherzando, in which the "Russian hymn" from the first movement reappears, played by the clarinet and bassoon. The Intermezzo melody is then recalled, followed by a transition of a few measures leading into the finale.

The last movement is in a broad A-B-A form. The A section consists of a string of themes with a sharp rhythmic profile, plus an expansive lyric idea. The B section itself can be divided into three sections, with a central Lento molto espressivo (slow, very expressive) flanked by a brilliant scherzando. The entire B section is based on material from the first movement: what was originally a lyrical second theme becomes the basis for a series of scintillating variations, combined at one point with the "Russian hymn." The Lento is, in essence, another variation on the first movement's second theme. After a recapitulation of the A section, the tonality changes from D minor to D major, for an ending that is both solemn and jubilant.

Rachmaninoff on Gustav Mahler, who led the second performance of the Third Piano Concerto:

Mahler was the only conductor whom I considered worthy to be classed with [Arthur] Nikisch [the most celebrated conductor of the time]. He touched my composer's heart straight away by devoting himself to my Concerto until the accompaniment, which is rather complicated, had been practiced to the point of perfection, although he had already gone through a long rehearsal. According to Mahler, every detail of the score was important-an attitude which is unfortunately rare among conductors.