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December 10, 2012

Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto: The Philadelphia Story

Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto is one of the best loved concertos in the Romantic piano literature. This past weekend’s performances by The Philadelphia Orchestra with Gianandrea Noseda conducting and Denis Matsuev as soloist were very well received, with sold-out concerts and standing ovations in Verizon Hall.

How was the Concerto received when it was first performed in Philadelphia over 90 years ago? The story has a bit of an odd twist: The piece wasn’t performed in Philadelphia until 10 years after its American premiere and when it was, it was heard twice, by two different pianists, within five weeks’ time. In both cases, critical reaction varied widely but was generally favorable.

Rachmaninoff wrote the Third Piano Concerto specifically for his first American tour in the fall of 1909. He premiered it with Walter Damrosch and the New York Symphony on November 28 of that year. On the previous two days, November 26 and 27, Rachmaninoff had appeared with The Philadelphia Orchestra, but he did not perform the Concerto then. Orchestra conductor Carl Pohlig turned the entire program of these concerts over to Rachmaninoff, who played his Three Preludes for solo piano and conducted his own Second Symphony along with Musorgsky’s A Night on Bald Mountain.

November 1909 review of Rachmaninoff's debut concert with The Philadelphia Orchestra. Conductor Carl Pohlig turned the entire program over to the young Russian pianist/composer.

Philadelphians finally heard the Third Piano Concerto in early 1920. Leopold Stokowski and the Orchestra presented it with French pianist Alfred Cortot on January 2 and 3, 1920, and then again with Rachmaninoff himself on February 6 and 7.

Following the Cortot performance, critics were unanimous in their praise of the pianist, but varied in their reaction to the Concerto. The Evening Bulletin wrote, “While he had been announced to play the Schumann A-minor concerto, Mr. Cortot substituted the Rachmaninoff composition. … The modern Russian is quite a different matter from the classic Schumann and no doubt there were some persons in yesterday’s audience who would have derived more real pleasure from listening to the more melodious work of the latter. The Rachmaninoff concerto has more rugged power and dramatic significance than of simplicity of pure melodiousness. It is Russian to its centre.” The Evening Ledger critic praised the beauty of the piece’s themes and orchestration, particularly in the first movement, but noted that, “The concerto … on a single hearing, does not seem to reach the standard of [Rachmaninoff’s] two earlier ones. … It is very long and some of the last two movements are not particularly interesting.”

January 3, 1920, review of Alfred Cortot’s performance of Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto. This was the Philadelphia debut of the piece.

The North American, on the other hand, noted that “the shining greatness of Rachmaninoff’s third piano concerto, heard here for the first time, was superbly matched by the greatness of Cortot’s interpretation. … There is subjective might in [the concerto’s] impassioned cry.” The Public Ledger was the most effusive: “The concerto is a tremendous work. In its rough-hewn mountainous bulk, it holds the height and the depth of a great intellect that speaks for the mind and the soul of the true Russia. It is cosmic in its immensity; hearing it for the first time is like one’s first performance of ‘Hamlet’ or of a Brahms symphony.”

When Rachmaninoff himself performed the Concerto with Stokowski and The Philadelphia Orchestra on February 6 and 7, 1920, it was overshadowed by his other composition on the program: his choral symphony The Bells. It was the American premiere of this large scale work and most of the attention was directed to that piece and not the Concerto. Most critics mentioned the Concerto only briefly after giving extensive coverage to the symphony. The North American, for example, noted at the end of a lengthy review of The Bells that “Rachmaninoff’s playing of his own third concerto merits extensive discussion,” but then followed with only a few sentences on the subject before concluding that the Concerto “is a work of stirring emotional force.” Likewise, the Record concluded a long review of the symphony with only some brief disparaging remarks on the Concerto: “Preceding the symphony, Rachmaninoff appeared as soloist in his D-minor concerto, in which his brilliant playing did a great deal to offset the general impression of lack of consistent development.” The Public Ledger on the other hand began its review with a highly favorable discussion of the Concerto and gave equal attention to both pieces. Also praising the Concerto were the Bulletin, which wrote that it “is a beautiful, characteristic work for the piano, typically Russian, deeply significant in its dramatic power,” and the Inquirer, which characterized it as “a noble work, full of emotion, rich in melody and most skillfully constructed.”

February 7, 1920, press clippings of the Rachmaninoff concert. Most reviewers focused on the American premiere of Rachmaninoff’s choral symphony The Bells and not on his Third Piano Concerto, which was also on the program.

 Judging by their reactions this weekend, contemporary Philadelphia audiences would seem to agree.