Rachmaninoff’s 3rd Piano Concerto

I recently received an email from an old friend of mine, querying about all of the relevant information, affirming memories and seeking to resolve uncertainties. The message sitting in my inbox brought back tangible bits of memory; bits that had not been examined in quite some time.

In high school Eric Dorris introduced me to Rachmaninoff, a Russian composer of international and timeless renown. Eric let me borrow the cassette tape of Vladimir Horowitz and the New York Philharmonic performing Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto at Carnegie Hall in 1978, and the tape changed my outlook on classical music forever. I copied the tape and rapidly became obsessed.

The Rach 3 engaged me in ways I had never considered possible of music. Within weeks I was singing (yes, singing; not humming) along with the melodies and tracking each individual note, theme, and measure, anticipating those to come. It got to the point that the tape could be rewound or forwarded to any index position at random, and within a second or two I knew exactly where I was in the piece, what I had missed, and what I could soon expect to hear. Upon pausing I would continue the piece in my head for several measures, complete with recording oddities and audience noise. Yes, even the sneezes were memorized.

In short, it became a part of my life.

Over time the tape wore through and ceased to provide the subtleties of sound necessary to represent such a dynamic piece. To my great disappointment, it appeared as though the particular version to which I had become accustomed was rare and difficult to find. I tried purchasing other versions, but inevitably each was compared with my acute memories of the original and found wanting. Even a recording of Rachmaninoff himself playing his very own 3rd piano concerto seemed rushed to me; inexpressive and forceful, frantic and impatient. He seemed to simply want to get it over with, and I felt cheated. After a single listen I cast it aside, dejected.

It wasn’t until my freshman year in college that I found it again at a Virgin Megastore in San Francisco; I was beside myself, my beloved version found on CD: Horowitz at Carnegie Hall, 1978. The cover showed a seventy-four year old Horowitz, bowing after what I assumed to be the end of the performance. I imagined sweat on his brow, and an aching in his forearms. Amazon.com has the same version, although in a different case and in slightly better quality, I think.

I quickly became re-enthralled, and to this day remain exceedingly fond of the “Rach 3.” The interest has since expanded considerably into a more and more diverse collection of composers, and I thank Eric for the shared enthusiasm which led me in this direction in the first place.

It was good to hear from him and good to reconnect, if only for a moment or two. These memories are among my favorites.