Rach 3: pianists who shine Concerto: Outstanding performances of the difficult work have been recorded. A Top 10 list begins with Vladimir Horowitz in 1930.

Classical Sounds

March 16, 1997|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Two evil forces drive the movie "Shine." The first is Peter Helfgott, whose brutal, domineering discipline is responsible for the descent of his sensitive, piano-prodigy son, David, into schizophrenia. The second is the man-eating Rachmaninoff Third Concerto, a piece so dangerously difficult that attempting to learn it before one is mature is to invite a nervous breakdown.

These demons are fearfully effective in the movie. But the case in real life appears to be rather different. Most of the members of the Helfgott family deny that Peter was the brute that "Shine" makes him out to be. And the Rach 3 (as the concerto is called in the movie and by almost all musicians) -- far from being the enemy of young pianists -- is actually more likely to be an ally. The pianists who learned the piece as teen-agers, and whose performances of it helped lead them to fame, include Vladimir Horowitz, Emil Gilels, Van Cliburn, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Horacio Gutierrez, Garrick Ohlsson and Andrei Gavrilov -- to name just a few.

The fact is that the sooner a pianist learns the Rach 3, the better off he or she is. This is a concerto that contains more notes than any other. Its fearsome difficulties are best overcome, as the pianist Alexander Toradze, who learned the piece after he turned 40, once remarked, "when you are too young and dumb to realize how hard it is."

It was written in 1909 and dedicated to Josef Hofmann, whom Rachmaninoff and most of his contemporaries regarded as the greatest of pianists. But Hofmann, who was 33 at the time, never played it. Late in his life, Hofmann said he never performed the Rach 3 because he considered it "a piece of fluff." But the truth is that Hofmann -- who never hesitated to play such real pieces of fluff as the now forgotten concertos of Anton Rubinstein -- was probably afraid of it.

It scared off other pianists until the late 1920s, when Vladimir Horowitz began to enjoy great success with it. Today it is the combat in which many young pianists earn their coats of arms as virtuosos.

It's easy to understand its popularity with pianists and audiences. The concerto's subtle construction evolves from a simple opening melody into a work of impressive cohesiveness, held together by careful thematic cross-references; its spacious, richly varied design concludes with the tumultuous force of a dam burst.

"Shine" has made the Rach 3 more popular than ever. Unfortunately, most of the film's fans have been buying Helfgott's own recording -- at the unprecedented pace of 12,000 copies per week. Since Helfgott's performance is technically labored, rhythmically unsteady and interpretively shallow, the following guide to 10 genuinely great performances, listed in the order they were recorded, is offered as a public service.

Vladimir Horowitz, 1930

London Symphony conducted by Albert Coates. EMI CHS 7 63538.

Horowitz went on to record the Rach 3 two more times (in versions less disfigured by the cuts made necessary by the exigencies of 78 rpm records). But it is this interpretation --

without the grotesque affectations the pianist inflicted upon the concerto in his later years -- that inspired Rachmaninoff to make an unscheduled appearance onstage, embracing Horowitz after one of his performances. At the time of this recording, the Rach 3 was not the familiar piece it is now, and this interpretation was considered a revelation. Arthur Rubinstein never forgot the first time he heard it. "It was certainly the finest record I ever heard," the great pianist recalled in his memoirs, adding that the friend who put the discs on the turntable remarked upon "the astounded expression on my face."

Sergei Rachmaninoff, 1939

Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy. RCA Gold Seal 09026-61265.

Rachmaninoff was 66 when he made this recording, but it nevertheless demonstrates the prowess of one of history's greatest pianists. The composer takes the same cuts Horowitz did, thus seriously compromising the work's structural integrity. But what a performance -- unbelievably fleet, utterly unsentimental. The nonchalance with which Rachmaninoff throws off dazzling passages, such as the first movement cadenza, continues to give other pianists sleepless nights.

Emil Gilels, 1955

Paris Conservatory Orchestra conducted by Andre Cluytens. Testament SBT 1029.

Listeners who know Gilels from the recordings he made late in his life can have no idea of his power, of the sheer mass of sound he released from the instrument. This performance shows us the 40-year-old Russian in all his leonine glory. Despite recorded sound that does less than complete justice to the pianist's seductive thunder, it remains the most muscular interpretation on records.

Van Cliburn, 1958

Symphony of the Air conducted by Kiril Kondrashin. RCAS 6209-2RC.

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