Scaling a musical 'Mount Everest'
By Derek Paiva
Advertiser Staff Writer
Sergei Rachmaninoff, when asked to name the most important pianists of the 20th century
Composer/pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff wrote the mind-numbingly difficult piano concerto that would send many a budding piano prodigy screaming under his Steinway and one in particular, famously spiraling into a nervous breakdown as a tribute to his hero, the celebrated pianist Josef Hofmann, in 1909.
Of his own Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 3 in D-minor monolithically aliased as "The Rach Three" by pianists who have dared to scale it Rachmaninoff himself said, "No one will ever play this work because of its difficulty and length and perhaps, too ... because of its dubious musical merits."
Criticized for lacking the strong rhythmic shape and melodic wallop of the more popular Second Piano Concerto in C-Minor it followed, The Rach Three was even rejected by its intended benefactor. Grousing that The Rach Three's piano part was more suited for hands larger and more muscular than his own dainty digits, Hofmann panned the piece as " ... a short melody constantly interrupted with difficult passages; more a fantasie than a concerto."
The criticism limited the composition's public acceptance, with only Rachmaninoff, a mere handful of his peers (most notably, Vladimir Horowitz), and the most prodigious of piano students and professional pianists accepting the challenge of The Rach Three's requisite technical bravado for much of the 20th century.
"Some people say that The Rach Three is Mount Everest, and it is, technically," agreed Honolulu Symphony music director Samuel Wong, a week away from conducting Russian-born pianist Alexander Toradze and the symphony through the somewhat misunderstood piece. "It is one of the hardest things in the (piano) repertoire to play. A real knuckle-breaker. So, a lot of the way it was characterized in 'Shine' is true."
Wong, of course, was referring to director Scott Hicks' 1996 Academy Award-winning film detailing piano prodigy David Helfgott's sad, strange life and near-complete mental breakdown the latter partially blamed on Helfgott's blind determination to master The Rach Three. Nevertheless cheered as a "Karate Kid" for hopeful classical pianists everywhere, "Shine" shed new light on the technical virtuosity, if not somewhat ear-challenging musicality, of Rachmaninoff's Third. The ensuing buzz sent the film's soundtrack into the upper echelons of Billboard's Top 200 Album Chart, and symphony orchestras around the country scrambling to book pianists skilled in The Rach Three's minutiae.
"Since 'Shine,' the piece has definitely been booked (by symphony orchestras) a lot more than before," said Wong. As has pianist Toradze, a 1978 graduate of Moscow's Tchaikovsky Conservatory and, since 1991, a piano professor at Indiana University South Bend. Toradze has guested with almost every major North American symphony orchestra and a number of international orchestras, as well.
"Lexo has owned The Rach Three for a long time," said longtime friend and fan Wong, affectionately using Toradze's nickname. "I'm actually quite happy that I had a chance to do the piece with Toradze pre-'Shine.' He's a thunderous, earth-shaking kind of performer."
Wong also remains a lifelong fan of The Rach himself.
"He was such a high romanticist ... the high priest of piano virtuosity," Wong said of Rachmaninoff, who died in 1943 as one of classical music's greatest conductors and pianists, though surprisingly enough, not as one of the genre's greatest composers. "He was a formidable pianist. A great pianist. But he also wrote such enduring works for pianists of our time."
Turning his attention to this weekend's labyrinthine Honolulu Symphony centerpiece, Wong offered Rach Three newcomers several levels upon which to savor a virtuoso such as Toradze tackling it.
"One level is the pure athleticism and technical brilliance," said Wong. "The sport aspect. To see how many hoops he can jump through and how many hurdles he can clear. The other level is the lush and shameless romanticism of this piece. All of Rachmaninoff's work is written by and for great piano virtuosi with strength and a large hand span."