Rach and Roll

GREAT CLASSICAL MUSIC films always have a daunting piece of music woven through the score--often in a role that accomplishes more than just ambience. Remember Mozart's "Requiem Mass" haunting Tom Hulce's Wolfy in Amadeus, or Gary Oldman's Beethoven being possessed by the chorus of his "Ninth Symphony" throughout Immortal Beloved?

Now, Rachmaninoff's "Third Piano Concerto" leaves poor David Helfgott (played by Geoffrey Rush) thudding to the floor in a sweaty pile midway through the movie Shine. Helfgott's teacher, Cyril Smith (played by John Gielgud), goes on an adoring rampage about "the Rach Three" when the trembling young Helfgott approaches him to learn it. "It is truly dangerous music, a mountain, requiring athletic prowess and technical and interpretive skills beyond measure, the most difficult piano concerto ever written," warns Smith.

Thus begins the pop mythology currently surrounding the Rach Three. And inasmuch as insanity, dysfunction, and intense music continue to be a highly marketable package, the flim soundtrack is moving well, the real David Helfgott has a brand new recording of Rach's Third out, and his wife has a soon-to-be-published book.

But is the Rach Three really dangerous enough to have driven our young pianist, not to mention its Russian composer, mad? Bill Cermak, who can be found stocking the classical racks at Cheapo's Hennepin Avenue store, told me that while Rachmaninoff may have been in a bad mood a lot, he was generally a pretty steady guy. He wanted to break into the American scene around the turn of the century, and, despite the fact that he chastised Americans for their preoccupation with money, he wanted to buy an American car. His "Third Concerto" was his ticket to America and that car--a splashy piece for folks who enjoyed splashiness.

While it may not be the most difficult piano concerto written, the Rach Three is one of the most hypnotic and dramatic concertos a pianist could master. It lends itself to interpretation more than most piano works, so that no two readings are ever alike. All the piano greats have recorded it--Horowitz, Kissen, Gilels--and all shaped it to fit their own style.

Not surprisingly, the many recordings vary greatly in quality. The best pre-stereo recording is from 1944, by William Kapell, who played the piece with great discipline, but, the music being what it is, still found room for cathartic expression. Stereo-era renditions are dominated by a 1965 recording of Earl Wild navigating the Third with Horenstein conducting.

By the time you get to the digital age, it's hard to pin down the best recording. I chose three to take home and terrorize my cat with: Helfgott's, Leif Ove Andsnes', and Martha Argerich's. If you've seen Shine, Helfgott's recording has its sentimental value, but in the end comes off stilted and impulsive compared to the other two. The Andsnes sounds incredible; if you're an audiophile, this is the disc for you. But my favorite, hands down, was the Argerich. She was the only pianist who supplied the athleticism and drama to really blow my hair back and leave me stunned and weeping. Roll over Helfgott, Argerich truly Rachs my world.

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