Friday 23 August 2019

Classical: 'Rach 3': the story behind a pianistic masterpiece

Playing dumb: Sergei Rachmaninoff
Playing dumb: Sergei Rachmaninoff

The word posh is said to date from the heyday of ocean liners. For travellers heading west from the Old World to the New, the most desirable cabins on the Atlantic crossing would be the ones that faced south, getting the best of the sunshine en route. So, in seafaring ­parlance, Port Out, Starboard Home - POSH.

History doesn't record which class of a cabin Sergei Rachmaninoff enjoyed on his first trip to the United States in 1909, but we do know that the furniture included a piano with a silent keyboard.

Rachmaninoff, 36 when he made the trip, was one of Europe's top pianists, so conquering America was the next logical step.

Still, he wasn't that enthusiastic about going. It would mean a long time away from his family, and Rachmaninoff was a bit of a homebird. But go he would, and the trip would further cement his reputation.

He was being hosted by the New York Symphony Society. "Sergei Vassilievich Rachmaninoff does not come to America as an unknown artistic personality," their Bulletin reported. "Certain of his pianoforte compositions achieved worldwide popularity a number of years ago," it went on. "The present is his first visit to America."

He'd a brand new pianoforte composition for this New York debut - his third piano concerto. It was a monumental work, designed to showcase the performer's talent, and as such, not something you could just sit down and sight read.

Honing it back in Russia had left little time for preparation before departure, and there was nothing else for it but to practice the whole way there. Obviously, until the big day, it was for his ears only, hence the requirement for a dumb piano.

Rachmaninoff's fellow passengers knew nothing of the masterpiece being "played" in their midst. They'd have had to wait until a Sunday afternoon concert in the New Theatre on Central Park West in Manhattan to hear it in all its glory.

The Symphony Society, with Mr Walter Damrosch (in the way programmes described conductors at the time), kicked off at three o'clock with Mozart's Symphony No 41. This was followed by Concerto No 3 for the Piano with Orchestra by Rachmaninoff, played by the composer. "New, First Time", was helpfully added.

The concert was reprised in Carnegie Hall the following Tuesday. This time, Rach 3 - as it would come to be known - was described as a "new manuscript".

It obviously went down well, for it was back in Carnegie Hall just over six weeks later, this time with the New York Philharmonic, where none other than Gustav Mahler was in his first season as music director.

Rachmaninoff saw a kindred spirit in the conductor, who devoted time and energy in elaborate rehearsal to ensuring that the piece, with all its difficulties, would be delivered just right.

The collaboration was a huge success, the New York Herald critic offering the opinion that the composition would "rank among the most interesting piano concertos of recent years".

How true. Rach 3 is undoubtedly one of great triumphs of the Romantic era, a combination of beautiful melody and pianistic virtuosity allied to the kind of sumptuous orchestration that characterised the period.

You can hear it in all its glory on a 2-CD set on Decca - 444 839-2 - Vladimir Ashkenazy performing with the London Symphony Orchestra and André Previn.

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