Written in 1909, Rachmaninov’s 3rd piano concerto stands as one of the most popular – not to mention most technically demanding – concerti in the repertoire. Opening in the relatively sombre key of D minor, the initial theme is set. This relatively simple sounding melody provides the basic template for further development later on.
The specific recording I have chosen on which to base this article is a live performance by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra with Arcadi Volodos at the piano and James Levine conducting. There is a great range of emotion, artistic reading yet control in this account of the great work.
Having stated the initial theme, the piano gears up (0.55) for a sprightlier run through of the theme, this time the orchestra passing the baton between them whilst the pianist offers a more complex configuration, frequently using elementary chromaticism throughout (2.11) before arriving at a kind of reckoning, landing on a hammer blow A – whirling arpeggios racing out of control before Rachmaninov subdues everything down to close the section (2.30.)
There’s no time for breath however, since the piano eagerly drives us forward, paving the way for a new section. Brooding with a sense of foreboding, this has cleverly been derived from the initial theme by cleverly inverting the melody (2.44.)
All of the orchestra (tutti) join forces and rise together in a great wall of sound (3.02.) This dies away to some playful Q&A dialogue between the low strings and piano. At 3.53, the solo piano takes on this new theme in Bb major and develops it further until woodwind instruments join in the song.
Gently undulating onward, French horns add tonal colour (4.31) and typically beautiful Rachmaninov melodic passagework appears. The composer then uses the effect of descending left hand notes (4.53) to inject ever increasing passion up to a mini crescendo at 5.03. There is a nagging something to be explored, an itch to be scratched perhaps at 5.28 which scampers off down a rabbit hole and brings with it some nicely polished pianism.
The beginnings of a promising new dawn are glimpsed at 5.53, gaining confidence and starting to believe until a grain of doubts appears to pull it back at 6.06 and skilfully steer us back to the opening theme (6.28.)
This time Rachmaninov surprises us with an unexpected twist and change of key at 6.38. The composer is cleverly manoeuvring in order to go off in a new direction. This new adventure duly arrives at 6.56. Things are moving, change is afoot and tension unmistakably starts to build.
At 7.36, we hear an unsettling, danse macabre-esque theme which will come back to haunt us later! Inexorably this diabolical procession continues to increase in tension until the powder keg must blow at 8.01. Rachmaninov deploys a series of enormously powerful chords – these becoming ever more challenging to play (both in terms of rhythm and stamina) – as the piano slugging it out with the orchestra, demanding answers but finding only stalemate. Something has to give and both factions suddenly find themselves charging headlong into battle (8.21) – a few heavy blows later and everything shatters into a thousand pieces (8.26.) The pianist continues to scurry blindly along searching for something familiar to cling onto, but there is a great sense of the unresolved in these passages.
You can sense quite clearly that the battle just heard will not be the last. At 9.47, we hear an unsettling shivering effect running through the string section, which is played against a backdrop of probing chords in the piano. These not providing the desired solace, the dreaded danse macabe returns at 10.00 promising something altogether darker and introspective. In fact, at this juncture, Rachmaninov actually wrote two versions of the cadenza which was to follow. The one you will hear in this recording is generally marked ossia and was favoured by the composer himself and represents one of the most challenging cadenzas in the canon. Rachmaninov also wrote a (marginally) simpler version, which sounds more toccata like and is occasionally inserted by performers with less of a stomach for the challenge!
Dark, devilish and sounding like something emerging from a dungeon – the incredible passagework leads us to a full blooded choral restatement of the initial theme at 11.10. The composer was said to have had huge hands – allegedly he could span a 10th on the keyboard – and it shows here.
Thundering chords and the exploration of all unexplored possibilities lead us eventually to a firm hammering down of D major, sparkling arpeggios leading us next (12.29) to nervous waterfall like passages with a solo flute quoting the initial theme over the top – the oboe, clarinet and later horns reaffirming those sentiments.
At 13.12, there is time for another beautiful and delicate theme in Eb major to be expressed. Far from being genuinely serene and peaceful, there is an increasingly dark undercurrent of emotion and sure enough, at 14.00 the right hand whisks off into the bounds of insanity – truly losing control for a short period. Rachmaninov continues to persevere with this theme – soon the orchestra return and persuade the composer to give up on these thoughts and return to the warm and familiar bosom of the opening theme once more (14.54.)
One last run through leads to the inevitable coda, satisfyingly tied up with a gentle but firm rhythmic drive.
Entering the Intermezzo, we have suddenly found ourselves in a world of grief and discontent – the oboe doing a great job of singing those particular sorrows. At 0.39, lush and sonorous strings enter the fray, continuing the narrative.
The lower strings and brass instruments provide additional colour, illuminating the scene further before the piano enters, sounding akin to something from the end of the world (2.18.) This all settles down fairly quickly and a new theme is recited at (2.37) in Db major. This is again a minor tweak of the theme from the opening of the Intermezzo. There is something very Russian-sounding about this wonderful music.
We hear at various points throughout this movement, fragments of the opening theme from the 1st movement – Rachmaninov weaving together previous strands with consummate ease.
Another playful section in the piano following by a sharp plunge into Bb major (5.43) is followed quickly by a sudden modulation to C major (5.52) where we hear the romantic theme once again.
Before long, it becomes clear that Rachmaninov is building up to another of those wonderfully passionate crescendos – this duly appears at 6.23. This is not the last however – using another brilliantly disguised key change, the pinnacle is reached at 6.43.
Offering perhaps a glimpse of his Db major masterpiece theme from the yet to come “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” Rachmaninov closes out the theme with some truly beautiful passage work before revisiting that intensely Russian-sounding theme (7.25.)
Next comes a nervous sounding folk dance theme (7.45) which showcases some nice interplay between woodwind and piano (8.25.) This leads with a scampering ascent to a firm confirmation in Db major – the strings recounting all of their various struggles and hardships throughout the journey.
Somewhat inevitably, these passages lead back to the grief stricken and morose opening section. The piano takes a break whilst the orchestra bring us back into this taciturn world.
The cellos are particularly effective in the painting of these scenes (9.44.) We hear the strings lamenting at 10.02, the assembled brass instruments effectively showing the house caving in at 10.09. All that is left to do is to watch the burning embers and rising smoke.
It’s not over yet though – the pianist has the last word in this movement (10.27.) A mini burst of energy carries us with renewed vigour into the final movement.
A decisive tutti thud back into D minor cements us firmly into the finale. The piano leads the way in a kind of renewal – offering hope and new vivacity. After the collective pain of movements past, it’s time to push on – signs that we are readying for a new battle manifest themselves at 0.44.
The martial-sounding trumpet sounds at 1.04, galvanising us for the road ahead. A new section then appears (in C major) at 1.22 – this music will appear again later toward the end – the galloping nature of the rhythm coupled with the positive, driving melody suggest forward propulsion.
This particular section seems to run out of steam around 2.48 – there is then an air of contemplation which leads to a lengthy section of self-doubt and introspective music, introduced by the solo piano at 3.11. Although it leads to a major key conclusion, this is deceptive as the music is anything but happy and settled. It is the theme that cannot let go – torturous and relentless in equal measure, Rachmaninov seems to underline this mental anguish at 4.03 with musical waterfalls (played as arpeggios.)
The orchestral cavalry is called in at 4.27 to provide support and to somehow vanquish this unwanted discomfort. This proves ineffective however, as we are presented with another, even more introspective section at 4.51. The orchestra join the piano to shade in the required colour in the background. Something in this music suggests there is no escape from the melancholy, so Rachmaninov breaks away at 5.52 with a brief foray into the original theme, given this time to the ever expressive cellos.
There is time for one last examination however, of this heavy-hearted theme (6.20) which appears in soft, probing form – the flute standing alongside offering solidarity in the foreground. The horn then takes its’ place. The music swells to a heart bursting crescendo at 7.21 the pianistic figurations sounding like a swarm of honeybees – their rapid vibrations unable to calm down. It takes a general slowing descent in the orchestra to help soothe things down.
At 8.01, there is an eerie rumbling in the distance provided by the timpani. What follows in the piano is a series of chords that sound like the last rites being administered. Should our protagonist give up the fight? Or should they carry on fighting with the hope of going out with a bang.
The impatient strings at 8.28 prompt the latter option. Green shoots are suddenly appearing all around us and we are up and running once more.
At 8.53, we know that the pianist has re-joined the fight. The music works its way with building momentum toward an as yet undecided conclusion. The galloping solo piano theme we heard earlier has returned at 9.58, this time in Bb major. This drives the music onward with occasional affirmations from the trumpets. Borrowing on previously heard material, Rachmaninov leads us toward a mountain shifting precipice of a crescendo (11.05.)
Engaging in what initially sounds like a squadron of soldiers being drilled by their sergeant, the composer ingenuously recycles that danse macabre march (11.20) from the opening movement – perfectly in-keeping with the drama required at this late stage of the concerto.
Reaching an ear splitting culmination (11.50) – Rachmaninov hands the floor to the soloist to pave the way for the final theme with a rapid, thundering decent down the keyboard.
D major is the logical home key (asserted unequivocally by the piano) and Rachmaninov truly does save the very best until last here. The theme which first emerges at 12.09 must be one of the most beautiful of all closing melodies ever to be found in a piano concerto.
After further confirmation of the home key, this truly exquisite theme re-appears at 12.27, singing cantabile in unison with the orchestra and goes on to declare immortal, unconditional love for its recipient despite all of the hardships and struggles – the straining French horns at 12.50 say it all. The pictorial equivalent might be the reunited couple on the train station platform following years of enforced separation through war.
A new and brief surge of romanticism is quickly swept away in a rising tide of determination, the capabilities of our mortal pianist being pushed to the absolute limit before the composer guides us to the familiar and assured home ground of D major. Readying for a triumphant ending, we hear short, sharp cymbals underlining the raw power of this tremendous music before the assembled musicians bring this masterpiece to a deservedly jubilant ending.
If anything, our protagonist went out with a hell of a bang!
For those who are interested to see (and hear) this epic piece in full and glorious vision, there is an outstanding live performance available here:- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dRYSuGQfiqE