Movement 1: Allegro ma non tanto
Movement 2: Intermezzo: Adagio
Movement 3: Finale: Alla breve
This work was largely composed in the summer of 1909 at Ivanovka, though its conception probably goes back two or three years before that, and it was finished in Moscow that September. It was dedicated to Josef Hofmann, who, however, never played it. Rachmaninov practised the fiendishly demanding solo part on a dummy keyboard during his Atlantic crossing, before giving the premiere on 28 November 1909 with the New York Symphony Orchestra under Walter Damrosch in New York’s New Theater. The American critics were not yet disposed to rave about Rachmaninov as a composer, even though, or perhaps because, the reputation of his C sharp minor Prelude preceded him, as it had done ten years earlier in Britain. After the premiere the New York Sun declared, ‘sound, reasonable music, this, though not a great nor memorable proclamation’; and in general the best the press had to say about the Third Concerto was that it put the Second in the shade. Rachmaninov for his part took badly to what he saw as the pervasiveness of the American business ethic, and despite thunderous audience acclaim he found the American public cold.
Nineteen days after the premiere, he played the new concerto with the New York Philharmonic under Gustav Mahler at Carnegie Hall, professing admiration for the Austrian maestro’s attention to detail and his ability to make the musicians stay on, unprotesting, long after the scheduled end of a rehearsal. On 4 April 1910 he introduced the concerto to Russia, with the Moscow Philharmonic conducted by Evgeny Plotnikov. Russian critical responses were warmer than those of their American counterparts, but in general European critics considered the work more as a splendid vehicle for Rachmaninov’s pianism than as a noteworthy composition in its own right. Even so, only a few years later the Third Concerto’s success had become so colossal that even as self-confident a spirit as Prokofiev was intimidated by the piece and determined to outdo it with his even more gargantuan Piano Concerto No 2.
The D minor Concerto opens with a sense of palpable anticipation; anyone bar the first-time listener knows that this modest pulsation is going to unleash waves of astonishing power and energy. The opening paragraphs are in a constant state of becoming. The strings are kept muted while the tempo accelerates, and ideas spin off that will germinate further on – such as the trumpet counterpoint that will soon support the second subject, on strings alone, before the piano is sent into dreamy raptures by it. Once again the ability to rhapsodize without sacrificing tautly disciplined thematic working brings to fruition everything Rachmaninov had learned from Taneyev and, indirectly, from Tchaikovsky. The remainder of the exposition is again built on a series of accelerandos. And all this is but preparation for the colossal accumulation of the development section. This initially dips down, gathering energy for the ascent, and in its course Rachmaninov goes through a bewildering succession of different keys while maintaining unwavering control of their overall trajectory (regulated by the bass line on cellos and double basses, from the breakthrough climax to the entry of the cadenza). Among his second thoughts for streamlining the piece were to provide the first movement with a less densely packed cadenza than the original (Stephen Hough plays this revision, as does the composer himself on his single recording of the work, made with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Eugene Ormandy in 1939–40). After its titanic climax the cadenza enters a relaxation phase, supporting snippets of the opening theme on flute, oboe, clarinet and horn in turn, and the movement concludes with a brief review of all the material, the last few bars marked accelerando, in conformity with the main structural principle established in the initial phases.
As in the Second Concerto, the slow movement starts by bridging the harmonic gap from the previous one. This process is greatly magnified, and once again the main ideas are all in a greater state of tonal flux than their counterparts in Rachmaninov’s previous concertos. Does the soloist’s opening flourish – rooted on F sharp minor with added sixth – define the home key, as it thrusts away the orchestra’s continuing attachment to D minor? Or is its subsequent descent into D flat major the defining moment? (Rachmaninov’s notated key signatures tell their own story, interestingly at odds with the music’s surface orientation.) A hyper-passionate climax seems to purge the movement of its expressive longings, and a mercurial F sharp minor episode fleetingly recalls the main first movement theme, now woven around the piano’s repeated-note figurations. Now that the piano has temporarily got the urge to rhapsodize out of its system, it pushes through to a mini-cadenza, which serves as a characteristically hyperbolic upbeat to the finale.
Music as firmly rooted in tradition as Rachmaninov’s always draws on the vast stock of archetypes inherited from the nineteenth century, skirting the edges of allusion and quotation. But the opening paragraph of the finale is closer than anything else in the Third Concerto to outright quotation, paraphrasing as it does Rimksy-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Festival Overture. This reference in turn lends support to those who would trace religious imagery in the work back to its chant-like opening theme (a connection that Rachmaninov himself always brushed aside as fortuitous, despite his own devout Orthodox nature, and despite being steeped in the Church’s musical traditions). A foretaste of the heroic victory to come, built on the piano’s galloping left-hand syncopations, eventually subsides into a long chain of episodes, initially fairly relaxed but gradually building into a vast accompanied cadenza (which the composer significantly cut when he made his recording). This central phase is cadenza-like both for the pianist – in its swirling toccata figurations – and for the composer – in its subtly crafted references back to the first two movements at the same time as it works over the finale’s own ideas. As with the Second Symphony, the finale features a redemptive wide-spanning theme, with piano and orchestra at last united in a paean of praise to an unspecified higher power.
from notes by David Fanning © 2004