I had thought I would next write about Beethoven but I’ll put that off for another day. Right now I’m in the midst of a marathon: listening to several YouTube videos of Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto. Some of you may remember the piece from the 1996 film Shine, in which a young pianist is driven to a mental breakdown by a stern father driving him to master the “Rach 3.” The piece is certainly difficult but not nearly as much so as the film suggests. While it is a challenge to play, it is a great joy to hear.
If I were allowed just one word to describe the music of Rachmaninoff, I would gladly choose “rich,” but creative and unique also come quickly to mind. I confess — speaking, of course, as a person with no musical ability at all — that I cannot imagine how a composer chooses his or her notes and orchestrations. It is all mysterious and magical to me. I often remember something Leonard Bernstein once wrote about Beethoven: You cannot predict what note will come next but when you hear it, you find yourself saying, “Of course, it was inevitable.”
It is that way with Rachmaninoff, too. Every note seems the perfect and only note that could be there, yet it comes always with a freshness that calls us into a rich world beyond our own.
On YouTube, there is a very precise rendering (with a couple of minor exceptions where it sounds to me as if his old fingers got muddled a bit) by the elderly but lively Russian pianist Vladimir Horowitz. A contrast can be heard in young Olga Kern’s playing of the same piece with great, open passion.
If you want a sound that somehow blends the precision of Horowitz with the passion of Kern, try the Argentine pianist Martha Argerich, one of my favorites.
Slightly unusual is the rendering by Yuja Wang, whose timing is just a bit different, constantly catching our ear and claiming our attention. Her style is especially fitting for Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, where she displays a lightness of touch that protects the piece from becoming awash in sentiment.
One warning about Rachmaninoff’s Third: It makes rotten background music. It demands our attention, pulls us into its passions, draws tears of joy from us. If you are new to music, it may take a listening or two before you are able to release yourself into its emotional depths. But of this I am sure: If, like me, you are still listening to it again and again after nearly 60 years, it will still be as fresh and rich — so very rich — as when you first surrendered to it.