Sergei Rachmaninoff composed four piano concertos over a span of nearly half a century; the first dates from 1891 and the fourth, written in 1927, did not assume its definitive form until 1941. Rachmaninoff was one of the few 20th-century artists who was still continuing the tradition of composing piano virtuosos like Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Schumann, Liszt, the Rubinstein brothers, and others from the previous two centuries. Rachmaninoff’s contemporaries Sergei Prokofiev and Béla Bartók were also examples of this, but unlike them, Rachmaninoff never abandoned the expressive resources of Romanticism in his composing. He remained faithful to the legacy of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, whose influence we find in the breadth of the themes, the nostalgia of expression, and the orchestration. He also never left behind the influences of Russian folk music, something we also find in the works of Mussorgsky, Borodin, and others.
Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30, is regarded among pianists as one of the most difficult, and not only because of its technical demands (there are several passages with “ossia” versions, allowing performers to choose the more difficult or the easier option), but also because of its length. The concerto was dedicated to Józef (Josef) Hofmann, a pianist of Polish descent, but Hoffmann never played it. Rachmaninoff had composed it especially for his tour of the USA, where he wanted to present himself not only as a pianist, but also as a composer. The work was premiered on 28 November 1909 in New York with Walter Damrosch conducting and the composer at the piano, and it was heard again the following year on 16 January at Carnegie Hall in New York under the baton of Gustav Mahler. Rachmaninoff was extraordinarily impressed by Mahler’s approach. Although the orchestra had already rehearsed the composition, Mahler devoted himself to giving a precise reading of the work’s details. According to the musical author and composer Oskar Riesemann, Rachmaninoff commented: “Every detail of the score was important – an attitude too rare amongst conductors.” Shortly afterwards, the Piano Concerto No. 3 was given its Moscow premiere on 4 April 1910. The typically “Russian-sounding” opening theme is reminiscent of folk music or, according to some of Rachmaninoff’s biographers, an old Russian liturgical melody; the composer, however, did not agree with that characterisation. About the theme, he wrote to the musicologist Joseph Yasser: “It is borrowed neither from folk song forms nor from church sources. It simply ‘wrote itself’! You will probably refer this to the ‘unconscious’! If I had any plan in composing this theme, I was thinking only of sound. I wanted to ‘sing’ the melody on the piano, as a singer would sing it, and to find a suitable orchestral accompaniment, or rather one that would not muffle this singing.” The reprise of the sonata-form first movement deals primarily with this theme, while there is only a brief hint of the second theme. The nostalgic second movement is also typically Russian in character, and it leads without a break into the finale, which is again in sonata form. The composition is linked internally by a central idea that passes through all of the movements, and the second theme of the first movement reappears at the climax of the finale. The reemergence of these ideas creates the impression of ingenious improvisation that is so characteristic of Rachmaninoff. The wealth of the concerto’s harmonies, its masterful combination of homophonic and polyphonic writing, and brilliant orchestration all contribute to the work’s powerful effect.