Sergei Rachmaninoff
Sergei Rachmaninoff © Getty  /  TASS

Rachmaninoff: Everything you need to know about the piano concertos

A virtuoso pianist, Rachmaninoff unsurprisingly composed most of his works for the piano. His fame as a composer is due primarily to his four concertos. Between the wide acclaim of the first three and the misfortune of the fourth, here is a closer look at these iconic works.

Rachmaninoff's works are often criticised for their post-Romantic atmosphere, their "exacerbated" lyricism. However, the composer's popularity remains strong nonetheless. Regularly performed in concert, and often heard in the cinema (the theme from the Piano Concerto no.2 is heard notably in Billy Wilder's The Seven Year Itch, 1955), his music is still wildly popular. His piano concertos in particular, quintessential framework of the "romantic" concerto, as explained by André Lischke, Russian music specialist. A somewhat paradoxical fact when considering that these concertos were written only a decade before the piano concertos by Sergei Prokofiev.

Concerto no.1: An audacious first try

Ambitious and driven, Sergei Rachmaninoff was only 18 years old when he embarked upon his first concerto for piano, during the summer of 1891. The calm of the Ivanovka countryside, where his family owned a house, galvanised the composer. So great was his motivation that he composed the second and third movements each in only two and a half days!

The young composer was so confident that, during the rehearsals, he did not hesitate to stand up to the conductor and director of the conservatoire Vassili Safonov. According to Damien Top, one of the composer's biographers, he would stop the conductor with aplomb to rectify certain nuances or tempo changes. The premiere took place in March 1892 during a concert given by the students of the Moscow Conservatoire. Like each concerto that followed, Rachmaninoff himself took on the role of the soloist. The impressive cadenza of the first movement (which makes up almost one quarter of the movement!) seems to contain within it the early ideas of the later cadenza of the Piano Concerto no.3.

Certain clear references to influences and inspirations can be found in this early work by Rachmaninoff. The opening of the first movement, with its strength and vigour, brings to mind Edvard Grieg's Piano Concerto in a minor. References can also be found to the music of Anton Arenski, Rachmaninoff's professor at the conservatoire, and the music of Piotr Ilitch Tchaikovsky, another composer with a similarly keen melodic ear. Melancholic, Rachmaninoff displays a similar pronounced taste for minor keys, here the key of f sharp minor.

Concerto no.2: When hypnosis leads to glory…

Undeniably, the Piano Concerto no.2 in c minor is Rachmaninoff's most famous work. And yet, when composing its very first notes, the composer was at his worst. In 1897, he witnessed first-hand the disastrous premiere of his Symphony no.1. A drunk conductor, and a score deemed too complicated... Upon realising his failure, he was unable to even enter the concert hall: "At times, I covered my ears to block out my own music, whose dissonances were a veritable torture to me".

Against all expectations, a hypnosis treatment with the neurologist Nikolaï Dahl cured Rachmaninoff of his depression. From January to April 1900, the two men met almost daily. For the doctor, the solution was simple: Rachmaninoff must write a new concerto for piano. 

Rachmaninoff did just that on 27 October 1901, day of the premiere of the three movements at the Philharmonic Society of Moscow. Though met with roaring success, the work nonetheless divided critics and publics alike. The former criticised the composer's excessively emotional and lyrical approach, whilst the latter praised the Russian composer and his ability to bring his melodies to life.

"Many perform Rachmaninoff's concertos differently to how he suggested. They are far too sentimental, despite the fact that Rachmaninoff was not. He was romantic, full of emotion, but never in poor taste, never excessive", says the pianist György Sandor (Laeticia Le Guay).

This concerto may seem rather paradoxical since it is the orchestra that possesses the main melodic material, whilst the solo piano (deprived of a cadenza) has an "overall accompanying and ornamental role", as explained by Patrick Piggott in Rachmaninoff Orchestral Music.

Concerto no.3: Bursting with virtuosity

In honour of an upcoming tour of the United States, Rachmaninoff decided to create a third piano concerto. He sought to compose a "visiting card" so as to showcase his talents as a pianist and a composer, as noted by Jean-Jacques Groleau in his biography dedicated to the composer. To do this, Rachmaninoff chose the key of d minor, his favourite. Composed quickly, the concerto was rehearsed on a mute keyboard as he crossed the United States. Following the first performance on 28 November 1909 in New York, Rachmaninoff's fingers were so exhausted that he was unable to perform an encore!

Serge Rachmaninov en train de corriger son Concerto pour piano n°3 à Ivanovka
Serge Rachmaninov en train de corriger son Concerto pour piano n°3 à Ivanovka © Getty  /  Heritage Images/Collection Hulton Archive

Despite a seemingly simple opening theme, the work requires a great virtuosity on behalf of its performers. With layers of voices (sometimes three or even four), its structure is the most complex of Rachmaninoff's four concertos. However, "far from being an end in itself, this instrumental prowess is subservient to a continuously developing melodic material", explains pianist Laurent Caillet.

The concerto's reputation owes a great deal to the formidable cadenza of the first movement. Interestingly, the composer wrote two versions. Made famous notably by the recordings of Horowitz and Rachmaninoff himself, the first version is the most widely known of the two. Though considerable in its difficulty, this is nothing in comparison with the second version, whose endless chordal progressions require both strength and speed: Jean-Jacques Groleau described the work as "a true concerto for piano solo".

Concerto no.4: The unloved

On 23 December 1917, Rachmaninoff left Russia to avoid the Revolution, never to return. He moved to the United States a year later and, having lost all passion for composition, gave regular piano recitals. Only halfway through his career, the composer would only compose six more works. The Piano Concerto no.4 is the first of these.

After ten years of silence, Rachmaninoff began work on this final concerto, using various sketches composed in Russia. The resulting concerto, however, was met with little enthusiasm. On 18 March 1927, day of its premiere in Philadelphia, and 22 March in New York, the public is less than impressed. The work was deemed lacking coherence and continuity. "This latest and final concerto could have marked an important renaissance; instead it was a downfall", noted Jean-Jacques Groleau. Fortunately, Rachmaninoff's Russian Songs, composed concurrently, received a far more positive welcome.

This disappointment for Rachmaninoff resulted in the composer abandoning his compositional activities and reviving his career as a concert pianist. It was only in 1931 that Rachmaninoff composed his Variations on a theme by Corelli, and in 1934 his Rhapsody on a theme by Paganini, his final work for piano and orchestra.