Rachmaninov’s very large hands certainly came in useful when performing this, the most technically challenging of all the composer’s four piano concertos.
Until 1996, the concerto was largely eclipsed by its older sibling, the famous Piano Concerto No. 2 – but the gap between the two narrowed with the release of the film Shine. The movie told the true story of the Australian concert pianist David Helfgott, who suffered a mental breakdown and abandoned his career for many years. ‘Rach 3’, as it’s often referred to by pianists, is used powerfully on the sound-track and the Oscar-winning success of the film ensured a new audience for this muscular, Romantic work.
Rachmaninov composed the concerto in 1909 – a full nine years after the premiere of his Piano Concerto No.2. The Third is grander, fuller, and more expansive in tone and style – with the soloist stretched to the very limits of his or her ability. The soloist whom Rachmaninov intended to premiere the piece was his friend Josef Hofmann; curiously, though, Hofmann never actually performed it, apparently declaring that the work was not right for him.
This three-movement masterpiece sits alongside Brahms’s Piano Concerto No.2 as the most demanding of all Romantic concertos. It’s also one of the most electrifying.