Any Rachmaninoff 3 Fans Out There?
By "fans" I mean fanatics, or near-fanatics--the kind of person who likes the work enough to know all (or at least many) of the most highly-regarded recordings and can discuss in detail the strengths, weaknesses, and nuances of each.
I am not such a person with reference to any piece of music. The number of works which I have in multiple recordings is very small, and in the cases where I have a preference I usually can't say a great deal beyond "I like this one better."
I'm asking because I have a friend who is such a person, and she recently urged me to listen to this performance of Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto by an eighteen-year-old Korean named Yunchan Lim. She described it as "an earth-shaking event in the world of R3 fanatics," adding that the words are not too strong. If you know the work, I'd be interested in hearing your reaction: do you agree that this performance is extraordinary?
As for me: I had never heard the Third. I like the Second, though it's not one of my favorite works, and I have not heard it for many years. Somehow I'd gotten the impression that the Third is inferior, or at least widely considered to be so, which was mistaken. Since I'd never heard it, I was in no position to either concur or dissent with my friend's view of Lim's performance, so I decided to listen to another. Van Cliburn's 1958 recording seemed appropriate, since Lim's performance had won him the award named for Cliburn. And it was in 1958 that Cliburn became famous even among people who never listened to classical music, including the ten-year-old me, for winning the International Tchaikovsky Competition, in which he had played both Tchaikovsky 1 and Rachmaninoff 3. I vaguely recall being aware of his fame as a young star at the time. Apparently it had Cold War ramifications.
So I have now listened to the concerto several times, Cliburn's three and Lim's twice. And I can say two things: one, I like the concerto a lot, a whole lot. It is a wild, over-the-top piece of music, and you don't have to be a pianist to know that it's extremely difficult. The piano concerto is not my favorite genre, but this is one I'll be listening to many times. It must be some kind of acme in romantic fireworks, but it seems to me to have more depth than that description suggests.
And two, I do prefer Lim's performance, but I can't say much about why. It seems more fluid, more clear. But maybe I'm only reacting to the quality of the recording, not the performance, as Cliburn's has a sort of muffled quality.
Although the Cliburn recording I listened to was made in 1958, it is not the competition performance that made his name. This video does seem to be that performance.
If you're not very familiar with the way real experts talk about performance, listen to some of them discuss the question "Is Yunchan Lim's Rachmaninoff 3rd Concerto the greatest ever?" Two were on the Cliburn Award jury.
I rather think the conductor and orchestra, Marin Alsop and the Houston Symphony, deserve significant credit for the performance.
Oh, and there's also this question: how in the world does an eighteen-year-old reach not only that level of virtuosity--rare, but not the only example--but the kind of expressive depth that people in the comments on that last video describe. For instance:
I was changed because of his humanity, his ability to transcend the instrument, the music, and connect to something much higher, it almost stopped my heart from beating. I saw God in his playing.
The audience reaction reminds me of the time in 1980 when my mother took my sisters and me to a round of the Montreal Piano Competition. There were three competitors, who each had to play one piece. When the second player finished, the audience burst into loud and sustained applause that, in a concert setting, would surely have ended in an encore. But of course that couldn't happen in a competition, so the applause just kept going for a long time. Finally it quieted down, and the third competitor came onstage. Even as a 14-year-old, I felt sorry for her; there was polite clapping, but you could tell no-one cared. It was no surprise when the second competitor eventually won the competition. (He was Ivo Pogorelic.)
I know pretty much nothing about piano in general and even less about Rachmaninoff, but parts of the commentary video were very enlightening. It reinforced my realization that all through high school band and college wind ensemble, I was just playing notes, not music.
Posted by: Anne-Marie | 05/14/2023 at 06:38 PM
Very interesting, as I have a similar competition experience. At least twenty years ago I attended one in which three pianists played Rachmaninoff 2. I liked the second one best, and if I remember correctly she got somewhat more applause. And indeed she won. As with this post, I could not at all explain what I thought was "better" about that performance.
Posted by: Mac | 05/14/2023 at 10:04 PM