Rachmaninoff Third, Part Two

May 24, 2011

“Is the Rachmaninoff Third the hardest concerto to play?”

The Rachmaninoff Third is called the King of Concertos by some people. It is the piano concerto equivalent of Mount Everest. Everything about it is “more”: there are more notes, there are more minutes, there is more emotional power, there are more technical challenges, there is more legend. The second movement overshadows the first movement by having more energy and more long-lasting high points, and the third movement similarly overshadows the second. And it is actually one continuous piece. When you sit down at the beginning, the end is so far away that you can’t see it.

Playing it is certainly one of the hardest things to do that anyone could do. For days after the concert was over, I thought about this as I looked at great achievements in other arenas of human activity—acting, sports, science—and even in the arena of music. Yes, achievements in those areas are great achievements, but how many of them require the manual dexterity and mind-body coordination required just to play this concerto? And that is only part of what you have to do. You also have to present the musical ideas in the piece. And do the whole thing from memory. And do it in front of hundreds of people.

People also asked me how many other people besides myself could play this piece. They didn’t believe my answer that any Juilliard graduate should be able to play it. I think that’s because something extra happened in the May 7 performance that was beyond simply playing the piece, and they felt it.

I feel grateful to, and awed by, Rachmaninoff, and what he had inside of him to put into this music, and the power of his imagination to be able to do that.

–Jeffrey Chappell