Friday, March 22, 2013

The Rach 3 myth

No, I’m not referring to the myth, popularized by the movie Shine, that the Third Concerto of Rachmaninoff is the most difficult of Piano Concertos. How would anyone even codify such a thing? Technically? Different pianists have different kinds of technique. Musically? Again, musical difficulty is in the mind of the beholder. There are concertos in the piano repertoire that present greater technical and musical challenges for performers than Rachmaninoff’s Third: The Brahms Second is less flashy but more unwieldy; The Busoni Concerto is mammoth in its length and is an endurance contest few dare to undertake.

The myth to which I refer is the one that Rachmaninoff “gave up” playing his Third Concerto after first hearing Horowitz play it in 1928. It’s a myth that has no basis in historical fact and is a disservice to both Rachmaninoff the pianist, and to Horowitz himself – whose best performances of this work can withstand challenges from anyone. But the myth became legend over the course of Horowitz’s lifetime until many accepted it as fact. The myth was given credence of sorts when Murray Perahia stated it as fact in his liner notes to Horowitz’s Last Recording. Given Perahia’s reputation as an analytical musician, it’s ironic that he would accept this myth as fact and repeat it without verification. Would Perahia treat a questionable edition of a composer’s music so lightly? Doubtful.

Rachmaninoff (l) and Horowitz (r), with Walt Disney - Hollywood.

No doubt, Rachmaninoff was awed by Horowitz’s performance of his work. Rachmaninoff had heard about Horowitz’s performances of his Third Concerto throughout the 1920s via correspondence from friends who wrote of a young Russian who played “fabulously” – so doubtless his expectations were high. Upon hearing Horowitz play the Concerto in 1928, while Rachmaninoff himself played the orchestral part on the second piano, the composer was impressed enough to note that Horowitz “swallowed it whole – he had the courage, the intensity, the daring.” In today’s parlance, Rachmaninoff was “blown away” by Horowitz’s playing. Following a performance by Horowitz at the Hollywood Bowl in 1942, Rachmaninoff joined the pianist on stage and amplified his praise: “This is the way I always dreamed my concerto should be played, but I never expected to hear it that way on Earth.”

This goes to the question: Can a musician perform a piece even better than its composer? Can he reveal aspects of it the composer hadn’t even imagined? The unequivocal answers are yes, and yes.

But did Rachmaninoff give up the Third Concerto after hearing it played by Horowitz in 1928? The unequivocal and provable answer is NO.

First, Rachmaninoff recorded the concerto with The Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy at two sessions on December 4, 1939 and February 24, 1940.

But this website documents no less than 24 performances by Rachmaninoff of the Third Concerto between 1928 and his death in 1943 - the last took place in San Francisco on February 15, 1941. That compares with 14 performances of the First Concerto, 45 of the Second, 13 of the Fourth, and 40 of the Paganini Rhapsody – which was premiered in 1934 and received a slew of performances as it was introduced in various cities.

So, it’s time to put this myth to rest. Rachmaninoff continued to play his Third Concerto after hearing Horowitz. There is no last word in the performance of any music – just that which has yet to be uttered.

*The blogger expresses his appreciation to Greg Lile, Scott Davie, and the Rachmaninoff Society for their invaluable assistance.

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