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Best Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3 in Recording and Performance

Updated on November 23, 2016

A little background on Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3

Yes, you’ve heard – or you’ve probably had – you may have read it either: The notorious Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No.3 – or Rach 3 – the most difficult composition for the piano. Perhaps of all the most technically monstrous piano concertos, this is the most popular. How could it be not? Almost all of the greatest “show master” of the keyboard have taken on it in many ways, often to extremes – likely the fastest and loudest – and differently from one another ever since in its inception, from the 19th century to the current.

Composed in 1909, Rachmaninoff had it as a showcase to himself. His height, 6’6” meant long fingers, which is an apparent advantage to a pianist. He wanted to make use of those or take them to his advantage. Coupling them with his already superior technique summed up to his uber-hard piano concerto, his third.

Unfortunately, while there may be some pianists who could possess the same outstanding technique he had – only few could ever be as tall as he was, or whose height could be close to his. But hard work often transcends genetic debility like magic.

Today this still unplayable concerto has now become a standard for aspiring and esteemed concert pianists. A lot have done well with it, delivering chills and thrills and excitement.

Martha Argerich

Martha Argerich playing and living recording Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3 with Riccardo Chaily conducting the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra in 1982

Martha Argerich’s 1982 live performance of this concerto with Riccardo Chailly was a total knockout. Cut-throat and restless throughout, making it a real formidable monster.

The concerto was a real warhorse piece. And here she was, playing it like a warhorse thundering, sprinting and rampaging without a minute of slowing down like a blazing marathon runner. She might have used her technique and muscles well enough to scare this concerto to its submission, but she, nonetheless, had given it justice that the composer himself would have been glad to have heard.

Generally, her performance was mesmerizing, but some were not pleased thinking she butchered it. Yet nobody could deny: It was a testosterone-infusing performance anybody would have craved many times in his lifetime. And Argerich was in her best shape giving her audience such an experience, turned herself into a “lioness” and made a classic performance.

In the 1990s, a recording of that live performance was released, gaining wider acclaim of her boldness, setting a bar to it both on stage and in a disc, for which her contemporaries and emerging concert pianists are drawing inspiration from, trying to surpass the speed or imitating her courage and spirit.

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman's recording of Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3 with Claudio Abbado conducting the London Symphony Orchestra

If you are – or if one does – looking for the best Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3, either on a recording or on a performance, it’s safest to eye for one with Claudio Abbado. Yes, he’s not a pianist. But he’s got the reputation for being the pickiest of all the conductors, who did not rely on the musician’s “star factor,” and his/her ability to sell out records and attract audiences. He had handpicked every musician he worked with – reminiscent of an amateur musician auditioning to get into a conservatory.

Not all great pianists and piano superstars worked with him, only those who fit in with his music. So you can assure a quality, first-rate, music when a soloist was in collaboration with him. Here, the Russian Pianist Lazar Berman teamed up with him to record the concerto.

Who knows what was in his mind, working with Berman and recording it only once. Maybe, he found Berman to be most suited to it.

The concerto has been performed and recorded many times, but what made Berman’s stand out was his utter objectiveness in discussing it, playing it by the score. And Claudio Abbado on his side made the music bring excellence.

It was not, however, because of the conductor that put the recording on the list, but the duo being perfectly matched together.

A new listener may find them boring, but a well-fed listener who has been too familiarized with the concerto will find that simplicity, after all, is the best.

Van Cliburn

Van Cliburn performing and recording live Rachmaninoff Piano concerto No. 3 with Kirill Kondrashin conducting the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra in 1958 and released under RCA Victor Red Seal label in 1959

This concerto made Van Cliburn the winner of the First International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in 1958. Since then, he had made recordings and performed it many times throughout his life. Like Rachmaninoff, he was over 6 ft. in height, but unlike the composer, his playing was different. Most of the performances of this concerto were at a breakneck speed, but he did better than bragging his long, slender, yet muscular fingers. Instead of incessant and aggressive flogging at the keyboard, he tamed Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3, bringing out its immaculate underlying beauty. Many have attempted to do the same and to play it like he did, but only a few – so few – succeeded. And Cliburn remains to be peerless.

In his performance here, he revealed the stark contrast between the dark and the bright side of this concerto – the suffering and the triumph that rest in its music, that few of the greatest pianists have so completely comprehended and so effectively achieved. He ran himself the ethos of music-before-self, putting himself in the back seat for music to prevail at its most intelligent and musical conception. There’s no question that he could have pulled some strings and brutally and explicitly showed off virtuosity, but he did not. He was modest. The only thing that worked up to invoke the best of it was his innate talent coming up with a truly remarkable tour de force that needs to be heard over and over by anybody eager at the piano, either a struggling pianist, a world-class pro, or simply an enthusiastic listener.

Emil Gilels

Gilels's recording of Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3 with Kirill Kondrashin conducting the USSR State Symphony Orchestra in 1949

Gilels's Paris recording in 1955 with André Cluytens conducting the Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire

Emil Gilels’s performance/recording of this concerto is another must-have- or must-listen-to. Why? Either you vie for one with Kirill Kondrashin or André Cluytens conducting, you will not fail to hear the ethereal golden tone of him and his fine, fine technique. If there may be "the most complete" playing, his two immediately deserved the label, where there could be no disappointment and overt pianistic expressiveness, yet no lacking in emotional investment. They are not only exciting to listen to, but also relaxing. They are not sadist to the ears. A listener might feel that not only Gilels was deeply engaged, but also held respect to it. He gave a performance embodied by substance. There wasn’t special in the two as compared with any other playing of this concerto, but what makes it rest above the most was its “just-right” of everything in it: right sense, right taste, and right understanding. It is on the rank of Berman’s.

If one wanted to hear a decent version of the concerto, it’s best to go for his. It is devoid of artistic abuse, yet never with the absence of panache and seriousness. It’s religious and might be ordinary when heard only a couple of times, but when the more versions are heard, the one that is straight-to-the-point, becomes more beautiful when compared to others unnecessarily stylistically performed. To say the minimum, there’s not much to it because it’s close to perfect, too close it is.

Vladimir Horowitz

Horowitz performing and recording live the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3 with Eugene Ormandy and the New York Philharmonic in 1978 and released the same under the RCA Victor Red Seal.

Vladimir Horowitz with Fritz Reiner conducting the RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra in 1951

The elusive Rodzinski/Horowitz "live recording" of Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3

Vladimir Horowitz was the God of this concerto. He owned it. Upon hearing it in Horowitz’s hands, Rachmaninoff was quick to say that it was how he imagined it to be played exactly. Horowitz helped popularize the work, which was not initially a hit after its premiere.

Horowitz, as a pianist, was a genius and played like no other. Regarded as one of the greatest masters of the keyboard, he traveled around the world securing admiration and unequaled popularity. He was superstar throughout his six-decade professional career. Anything he played became an instant hit and a standard repertoire. He was well-known for making his own music, not as a composer but with their music, transgressing their directions and establishing his own rules.

His impudence, however, was not without opposition and appalling criticisms. He ignored and discarded them. He went on to continue doing his own thing, landing him a spot on the history’s greatest pianists. Owing to that, his Rach 3 was so good, people clamored for it over and over. He reciprocated with at least five albums. One with Alfred Coates in 1930 was the first recording of this concerto. A decade later, in 1941, he made another with John Barbirolli and another with Fritz Reiner a decade later again, in 1951. In 1978, a live recording in Carnegie hall was made with Eugene Ormandy where he was in his 70s – the best of four arguably - an another with Zubin Mehta for two different companies. The former for RCA Victor Red Seal, and the latter for Deutsche Grammophon.(Although, there's another one that can be heard, it's not commercially available and it's elusive, the Rodzinski/Horowitz)

In each of the occasion he played it, it’s as if a different man of his caliber was playing. Incomparable to each of his recordings and to any other pianist’s – uniquely their own. All remained unparalleled, bearing the complete cadence of musical brilliance and exhibitionistic competence. He knew the tickle spots of the concerto, where the "bests" were and how to deliver them. There was never any dullness. Each was never predictable. When one was there to think, he’ll play it climactically, he’ll slow down and put on the plate something different. Instead to disappoint, he was always set to surprise and leave his audience awe-strung. Listening to all of them makes him undoubtedly deserving for his esteem.

Cecile Licad

Cecile Licad performing Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3 at the Eastern Music Festival with Gerard Schwarz conducting the Festival Orchestra

Cecile Licad’s rendition of the piece started out unconventionally, well at least relative to other pianists’. Instead of blowing out at the start and rushing through the climax, she seemed as if relishing every note of the passages. She carefully and delicately brought out the beauty in the first movement in a slow, elegant fashion. One already familiar with raging performances of this concerto might find that playing it the other way around elucidates more beauty, without banging and pounding and too much use of uncalled virtuosity.

Technically speaking, hers was not perfect. There were shortcomings, yet one will not see here an amateur pianist struggling to overcome this heavily demanding concerto objectively, playing every note right and following every instruction obsequiously. The challenge mainly came from her very musical attempt to simply make music. Some parts of the first movement sounded so labored (see time) as if she dared to play a concerto her technique doesn’t permit, or she’d been short of practice. But in the cadenza, she proves that her style is only a case of her emotion at-the-moment and everything was just in place – a part of the bigger plan.

In the second movement she again showcased how creatively simple and evocative hers was. It has never been played more emotionally engaging by any other pianists. Here she plainly plays out her musical talent, without concerning too much herself of flaunting and exaggeration. It’s very obvious, she’s into it.

Ending the second movement an excellent flair, it’s fair to expect a breathtaking third movement. And there it was. It did not come at a thundering speed, but like in the first movement, she’d been so much effective in building up a climax. She may have gone so fast on fast passages, yet there’s not either a lacking of artistic grit or a carrying of virtuoso arrogance. It was always about the music that she put forward to, giving pure musical delight to the audience and to herself. It was simple overall that one might be readily insensitive to call it inferior and doubt her talent, but for a sensitive listener who places music above technical concern, her Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3 would be definitely placed among the best. She made it so simple that it did not sound hard at all – that’s her genius.

William Kapell

I. Allegro ma non Tanto

II. Intermezzo: Adagio & III. Finale: Alla Breve

William Kapell's live, and only recording or Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3 with Ernest Macmillan with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra

William Kapell was a piano superstar, a Lang Lang of his age, whose career was cut short by a tragic plane crash. Spanning for a little more than a decade, his presence in the concert circuit produced his enduring fame and adoration by other highly-esteemed pianists like Van Cliburn and Eugene Istomin. Back in his time, recording technology was not yet at its peak. It was highly expensive, and only those who had a strong fandom and summoned cult followers were given the opportunity to be a recording artist. Luckily, aside from his impeccable technique and musical talent, his good looks made his recording more commercially viable. He was given the chance to record over and over that we’re left with nothing today why he was such a “star,” but music. There was no doubting, it was his intelligence at the keyboard, not his looks. At the present, one can only hear him, not see him. And if one is in a hurry to know him, might as well jump on his Rach 3, and be awed.

Listening to and being unaware of who was playing it, one might become suddenly scientific to suspect that he was a pianist of the first order with a handsome taste and a heartthrob’s confidence. Indeed there’s no denying he was everything. His Rachmaninoff 3 gives someone an idea of him “the rightest bachelor” – good looks, great talent, and famed status. He and Rachmaninoff’s Third Concert will surely make anyone fall in love with him.

Sergei Rachmaninoff

The composer playing his own concerto with Eugene Ormandy conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra

Leaving out Rachmaninoff himself would have been a disgrace. More than any other, he knew his work the most, how it’s written and how it’s supposed to be played. So while other performances that digressed to his style did well to the ears, his must still be the benchmark objectively and subjectively.

Rachmaninoff recorded it once, and that’s the only thing one could hear of his approach despite him having it performed regularly – he actually got tired doing it over and over.

Hearing it was above satisfying. It was exalting listening to a great concerto being played by its own creator because there was no faking or calculating – insecurities. No matter how he played, no one could have gotten in to say, “Hey, you’re doing it wrong. That wasn’t the composer’s intention.” If one could not appreciate his ordinate, direct playing, that one doesn’t know what he’s up to and talking about. Good that Rachmaninoff still did the best on this concerto, performing it with such an aplomb and tenacity – a conflation of Argerich’s temperament and Berman’s simplicity. He tackled it fast and loud without appearing contrived in doing so – a sheer atmospheric insouciance in his mood. The disparity was visible: a hard concerto and an ease of playing. He was full of mastery, overwhelming even, that the hardest concerto looked to be only an “another” to play. Despite such case, there was not a waning pleasure as his reading was a genuine product of well-crafted art and well-persevered technique.

Arcadi Volodos

I. Allegro ma non Tanto (First movement)

II. Intermezzo: Adagio

Arcadi Volodos’s recording is probably the best of his generation and of the latest, though recorded live in 1999 with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and James Levine conducting. It has the beat of Argerich’s thundering of the keyboard and an air of Cliburn’s sincerity, with the same respect as that of Berman and Gilels to the concerto and with a passion complete his own. His phrasing was utterly tasteful and sophisticated in the parts that some other good pianists sound boorish and brash. His textures were smooth throughout without being overpowered by the orchestra and without being too soft and delicate. He didn’t fail to deliver the climax because, at their moments, they are being deeply driven into life and allowed to speak as if freely on their own. Volodos was in great control of them all, very well in his cadenza. It was loud, as loud as it can be, louder than his peers, without giving out a taint of desperate flashiness. The emotional drive in the most crucial parts was the impetus for such powerfully evocative passages, not the attempt to pull the hardest concerto. In his mind was the music and his emotion as he seemed unguarded, not caring whether he commits a mistake or does them just right. In effect, only music was left – and music that impresses and leaves a mark in each of the listener’s heart.

For one who is yearning for that Argerich’s speed, but not for her brutal addressing, this one fills the gap.

III. Finale: Alla Breve

Arcadi Volodos's live recording of Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3 with Josef Levine conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in 1999

Alexis Weissenberg

Alexis Weissenberg's recording of Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3 with Georges Prêtre conducting the Chicago Philharmonic Orchestra

Alexis Weissenberg was another excellent pianist, a Leventritt winner and Juilliard-trained musician – like Van Cliburn. He made a lot of recordings. Not all were favored as his reading can go to extremes that may be less appealing to some critics. Nevertheless, his talent was very much apparent with his Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3. His blending with the orchestra was perfectly executed, without the orchestra and the soloist being dominated by the other. They both managed to produce a smooth, breathtaking music that is both intimate and mad – passionate in the purest sense. It may be safe to pitch that his cadenza was the best of all other – or one if not. Like that of Licad, his style was instinctively musical. He did not care to be different or to play like no one else did, but to play according to his own conception of music, without being too elaborate of the details, just working on the premise that “The whole is more than the sum of its parts.” It is simple, yet powerful and catchy. Good to listen to, yet occasionally frighteningly aggressive, though gives accent and distinctive touch on the whole performance, particularly in the cadenza and the second movement. Like Cliburn and Horowitz, he recorded it many times.

Live performance of Weissenberg with Georges Prêtre conducting the Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma della RAI in 1969


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