Ask a roomful of concert pianists to pick their graveyard moment in Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 (1909) and they’ll almost certainly point to five or so pages halfway through the last movement where an ant nest of piano notes infests a sparse orchestral threnody. When an elderly Vladimir Horowitz performed this passage – lank, dyed pageboy hair framing his Bela Lugosi face, hands darting over and under each other like butterflies – he looked more like a weaver at his loom than a virtuoso at his instrument. There are flickers of concentration, but the overall impression is one of extreme insouciance.
The originator of this style of playing was Sergei Rachmaninoff himself. His recording of this piece, not least in these pages, hints at nothing more than a mild inconvenience soon to pass. Through such performances – and there were many in America in the 1920s and 1930s – this difficult piece became a dowsing rod for the type of pianist who would define music-making in the 20th century, one who might otherwise never have emerged from more traversable Lisztian thickets. It is impossible to understand 20th-century pianism without knowing Rachmaninoff and this concerto, much as a history of pianism in the previous century would be hopelessly incomplete without tackling the dour Anton Rubinstein, a musician Rachmaninoff adored.
These years in exile – precipitated by the abdication in 1917 of Nicholas II, the last emperor of Russia, and lasting until Rachmaninoff’s death, aged 69, in 1943 – are a vital chapter in an already intriguing story of a musician living outside his own time. He is not an altogether co-operative subject, however. ‘I am a Russian composer, and the land of my birth has influenced my temperament and outlook,’ he told a journalist two years before his death.