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The beginning of the opening theme of the Piano Concerto No.

The Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30 by Sergei Rachmaninoff (colloquially known as "Rach 3") is famous for its technical and musical demands on the performer. It has the reputation of being one of the most difficult concertos in the standard piano repertoire.


Following the form of a standard concerto, the piece is in three movements:

  1. Allegro ma non troppo (D minor)
  2. :The first movement revolves around a diatonic melody that soon develops into complex pianistic figuration. The second theme opens with quiet exchanges between the orchestra and the piano before fully diving into a slower theme in a major key. The first part of the first theme is restated before the movement is pulled into a loud development section which opens with toccata like quivers in the piano and reaches a loud chordal section. The whole development exhibits features similar to a canon, such as an eighth note passage in the piano in which the left hand and the right hand play overlapping figures. The movement reaches a number of ferocious climaxes, especially in the cadenza. The first theme in its full form reappears just before the coda. Rachmaninoff wrote two versions of this cadenza: the dramatic and powerful original, commonly notated as the ossia, and a second one with a lighter, toccata-like style. In his recording of the concerto, the composer used the second cadenza. The first cadenza leads into a quiet solo section including the flute, clarinet and horn accompanied by delicate arpeggios in the piano. The piano then plays the less violent second cadenza, leading to the restating of the first theme in its entirety and closing with a tutti, silent, rippling coda.
  3. Intermezzo: Adagio (F sharp minor/D flat major)
  4. :The second movement is opened by the orchestra and it consists of a number of variations around a single lush, heavily romantic melody following one another without a rigid scheme. The melody soon transitions to a tonic major which is the second theme. After the first theme development and recapitulation of the second theme, the main melody from the first movement reappears, before the movement is "closed" by the orchestra in a manner similar to the introduction. Then the piano gets the last word in with a short "cadenza-esque" passage which transitions into the last movement without pause. Many melodic thoughts of this movement allude to Rachmaninoff's second piano concerto, third movement, noticeably the Russian-like, E-flat major melody.
  5. Finale: Alla breve (D minor → D major)
  6. :The third movement is quick and vigorous and contains variations on many of the themes that are used in the first movement, which unites the whole concerto cyclically. However, after the first and second themes it diverges from the regular sonata-allegro form. There is no conventional development; that segment is replaced by a lengthy digression using the major key of the third movement's first theme, which then leads to the two themes from the first movement. After the digression, the movement recapitulation returns to the original themes, building up to a toccata climax somewhat similar but lighter than the first movement ossia cadenza. The last movement is concluded with a triumphant and passionate second theme melody in D major. The piece ends with the same four-note rhythm – claimed by some to be the composer's musical signature – as the composer's second concerto.

The third movement follows the second without pause.

Rachmaninoff authorized several cuts in the score, to be made at the performer's discretion. These cuts, particularly in the second and third movements, were commonly taken in performance and recordings during the initial decades following the Concerto's publication. More recently, it has become commonplace to perform the concerto without cuts. A typical performance of the complete concerto lasts about forty minutes.


Proofing copies of the concerto (1910)
Written in the peaceful setting of his family's country estate, Ivanovka, Rachmaninoff completed the concerto on September 23, 1909. Contemporary with this work are his First Piano Sonata and his tone poem The Isle of the Dead.

The concerto is respected, even feared, by most pianists. Józef Hofmann, the pianist to whom the work is dedicated, never publicly performed it, saying that it "wasn't for" him. And Gary Graffman lamented he had not learned this concerto as a student, when he was "still too young to know fear".

Due to time constraints, Rachmaninoff could not practice the piece while in Russia. Instead, he practiced it on a silent keyboard that he took with him on the ship to the US.

The concerto was first performed on November 28, 1909 by Rachmaninoff himself with the now-defunct New York Symphony Society with Walter Damrosch conducting, at the New Theater (later rechristened the Century Theater). It received a second performance under Gustav Mahler several weeks later, an 'experience Rachmaninoff treasured' [45160]. The manuscript was first published in 1910 by Gutheil. The first performance in Englandmarker was given by Rachmaninoff in October 1911 at Liverpoolmarker under the baton of Simon Speilman, and he also played it in November 1911 at the Queens Hall, London under Mengelberg; the first performance by an Englishman was by G T Ball (later Sir George Thalben-Ball) in 1915 at the Royal College of Musicmarker in Londonmarker.


The concerto is scored for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horn, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, snare drum, cymbals, piano and string.

Performances and recordings

The first recording of the concerto was made by Vladimir Horowitz accompanied by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Albert Coates for the HMV label in 1930. This has been listed by English critic and writer Norman Lebrecht as one of the 100 greatest recordings ever made.

The composer recorded the work with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1939.

According to some critics, the most technically astounding Rach 3 ever registered is a live performance by Vladimir Horowitz accompanied by the New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra under Sir John Barbirolli, available on an off-the-air recording made in 1941.

Another noteworthy recording is Van Cliburn's performance in Carnegie Hall on May 19, 1958, in celebration of his victory in the First International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow a month earlier. The account, featuring Kiril Kondrashin and the Symphony of the Air is a probing, ruminative reading that presents the work in a different light from that of the blistering, and fast-paced, accounts often heard.

One of the most famous recordings of the piece, known for its speed, is that of Martha Argerich performing live with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin conducted by Riccardo Chailly.

Another highly renowned performance of this work is that of the pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy, with Bernard Haitink conducting the Concertgebouw Orchestra.


  1. David Dubal, The Art of the Piano, Third Edition (2004), Amadeus Press
  2. Norman Lebrecht, The Life and Death of Classical Music, Anchor Books, 2007
  3. Harold C. Schonberg, Horowitz-His Life and Music, Simon & Schuster, 1992

External links

Further reading

  • W.R. Anderson: Rachmaninov and his pianoforte concertos. A brief sketch of the composer and his style. London 1947

External links

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