Rachmaninoff Third, Part Four

May 26, 2011

“Did you listen to recordings to study this piece?”

The first time I performed the Rachmaninoff Third Concerto in 2007, I listened to a recording by Vladimir Horowitz as a model for the shape and the message of the piece as well as to study the interweaving of the piano and orchestral parts.

This time, I listened to Rachmaninoff’s recording instead. After all, he wrote the piece. I wanted to know: what did his own musicality bring to the playing of it?

Over the years, I used to find this recording to be unsatisfactorily stern and dry. It seemed that Rachmaninoff rushed through the piece, ignoring all of the luxurious harmonies and melodies and the abundant opportunities for highlighting them with rubato and lingering.  It reminded me of Gershwin’s fast, macho playing of the “Rhapsody in Blue” that similarly neglected to savor the beautiful moments.

But this time, close attention revealed that Rachmaninoff’s playing was anything but dry. He took plenty of liberties with timing and with dynamics to bring the piece to life. It’s just that what he did was done so naturally and done without making a point of it that I hadn’t noticed it before.

Now I was picking up some really astonishing details about his style of using pedaling, tempo, accentuation, phrasing, and dynamics to craft his performance of the piece. I noticed things he did that were different from the notation. I even heard him play a really wonderful wrong note in the last movement. Apart from that last item, I tested out these discoveries in my own playing of the concerto.

But as May 7 approached, I realized I had to finalize my own truthful reactions to the music and to instill them into my playing. No, it wouldn’t sound like Horowitz and it wouldn’t sound like Rachmaninoff, and it wasn’t supposed to. Insights, clues, and permissions—those could be gained from others. But stewardship of the interpretation could only be granted to myself by myself.

–Jeffrey Chappell