1909: Rachmaninov: Concerto No. 3 in D minor

WEDNESDAY, September 23, 2020 – 7:29 AM

1909: Rachmaninov: Concerto No. 3 in D minor, age 26

Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30, was composed in the summer of 1909. The piece was premiered on November 28 of that year in New York City with the composer as soloist. The second performance of the concerto took place on January 16th, 1910 and featured Gustav Mahler conducting. The work often has the reputation of being one of the most technically challenging piano concertos in the standard classical piano repertoire.

  • Allegro ma non tanto, D minor: Rachmaninoff wrote two versions of his cadenza. He eventually decided that the lighter of the two was his preference, but the story did not stop there. To this days some pianists choose one, and others choose the other. There is not much to say about the rest of this first movement except that it is massive, full of mood changes and extremely melodic.
  • Intermezzo: Adagio – D minor → F♯ minor → D♭ major → B♭ minor → F♯ minor → D minor: The second movement is constructed around a theme and variations, in an ABACA form, while shifting around various home keys. That’s the form. But my feeling has always been a very melancholy feeling that just won’t stop, like over and over again something brighter seems to lift the mood, but it just won’t go away. Then suddenly the piano ends the movement with a short, violent passage that moves into the last movement without pause.
  • Finale: Alla breve – D minor → E♭ Major → D minor → D major: The third movement is in a loose sonata form, but the main thing is that it is fast, exciting and ultimately triumphant. The final four-note rhythm is also  used in both the his 2nd concerto and 2nd symphony. You can actually sing his name to it: RACH – ma-ni-NOFF!

This recording: Van Cliburn was a rock star in the US after winning the prestigious Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, and for anyone who thinks his win was political, we know that Richter supported that win fully, telling Khrushchev that the young American indeed was “that good”. His way of playing this is more mellow, more thoughtful and somehow less percussive than any other performance I’ve every heard.


  • solo piano
  • 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets in B-flat, 2 bassoons
  • 4 horns in F, 2 trumpets in B-flat, 3 trombones, tuba
  • timpani, bass drum, snare drum, cymbals,
  • strings.


Rachmaninoff composed the concerto in Dresden[1] completing it on September 23, 1909. Contemporary with this work are his First Piano Sonata and his tone poem The Isle of the Dead.

More cuts…

As was true of his 2nd symphony, Rachmaninov cut this concerto, perhaps hoping to make his work more popular, These cuts were commonly taken in performances and recordings. But today no one uses those cuts, because no one thinks the concerto is too long, and it is incredibly popular now.

Silent piano…

Due to time constraints, Rachmaninoff was forced to practiced this symphony on a silent keyboard while traveling on the sea across the Atlantic.

Mahler conducted…

The concerto was first performed on Sunday, November 28, 1909 at the New Theatre in New York City. Rachmaninoff was the soloist, with the New York Symphony Society with Walter Damrosch conducting. The work received a second performance under Gustav Mahler on January 16, 1910. But there are conflicting stories about how that went. I read that it was experience Rachmaninoff treasured. Reportedly 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.

BUT (and there is always a “but”), another story says:

Mahler was reportedly less than enthralled by Rachmaninoff and his concerto. Benjamin Kohon, then-Principal Bassoon, said, “there were several mistakes made by various musicians during the rehearsals and Mahler didn’t hear it or didn’t want to hear it, which annoyed Rachmaninoff very much…”

Those are two very conflicting accounts, so who knows what the truth was.

Slow path to popularity…

It was not until the 1930s and largely thanks to the playing of Vladimir Horowitz that the Third concerto became popular. Horowitz was 20 years younger and like Rachmaninov was born in Russia. The two men were close friends, and Rachmaninov clearly felt that his younger friend played his concerto in a unique way that made people sit up and listen. Today the immense popularity of this concerto makes it hard to believe that there was ever a time when it was not universally loved.

2 thoughts on “1909: Rachmaninov: Concerto No. 3 in D minor

  1. I listened to this while taking a walk, and I did not want to stop listening, so I listened to the whole thing.

    A few days ago I was told of an unknown Russian composer and listened. The contrast let me grasp the brilliance of Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovski, Beethoven and the like. You can have an impressive passionate start to music that sets the heart pounding – but then it goes on and on and on; next piece, same thing. The likes of Rachmaninoff keep changing the weather so naturally and seamlessly, that we almost take it for granted that it must be so – and that is the genius.

  2. Technically challenging for sure. Someone described it as finger twisting madness. I liked the contrasts between passages that were fast, furious and powerful and those that were slow, quiet and gentle.

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