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Most concertgoers of any regularity know the basket-case-to-icon story of Sergei Rachmaninoff. In brief (because the story is so familiar): The universally admired pianist, but controversial composer, suffered a nervous breakdown in the aftermath of the disastrous premiere of his First Symphony. He was revived, so to speak, by a practitioner of the new art of hypnotherapy, Dr. Nikolai Dahl, who uttered the famous words, "You will write again, and the work will be excellent." And indeed it came to pass: a decade of splendid musical accomplishment, beginning with the luscious Second Piano Concerto, in C minor (1900-1901), and culminating in the Third Concerto, in D minor, completed in 1909, on the eve of Rachmaninoff's first American concert tour.
The D-minor Concerto was given its first performance by the New York Philharmonic on November 28, 1909, with Walter Damrosch conducting. Rachmaninoff scored such a success - as soloist and composer - that concerto (and soloist) were brought back several months later by the same orchestra and its newly-appointed music director, Gustav Mahler. The triumph was repeated.
Although the D-minor Concerto long existed in the shadow of its perhaps more overtly alluring predecessor in C minor, it is today at least its equal in popularity.
The D-minor Concerto is in the traditional three movements, a fast opener, in which after two tersely dramatic orchestral measures, the pianist enters with a melody of inescapably Russian melancholy, which is to serve as the binding element in all three movements. The theme is treated at considerable length by the solo, then further developed by the violas and horns before a mini-cadenza introduces the second, gentler theme (staccato strings), subsequently broadened into another lyric beauty by the piano.
The slow movement opens quietly, thoughtfully before - again - broadening into a big, lush theme for the solo, which is then brushed aside, but only momentarily, by a lively section for pizzicato strings, fancily embellished by the piano. After the lushness returns we enter, without pause, the headlong finale, a fingerbuster if ever there was one, and a surefire crowd-pleaser.
- Herbert Glass, after many years as a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, has for the past decade been the English-language annotator and editor for the Salzburg Festival.