Fingering Gymnastics

A new Sheffield International Concert Season begins at the City Hall this Friday when it is difficult to avoid Rachmaninov; in fact, it is impossible after Glinka’s Overture to his opera Ruslan and Ludmilla has opened proceedings.

Pity the poor chorus that has to gets its collective thorax round the same music – same speed! at the opera’s finale.

Following it, Sunwook Kim will be getting his ten fingers round Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto when another ten would be useful – it was alright for the composer, he had extra large hands to play it!

Such are the technically challenging demands of ‘Rach Three’ as it also known, all the more so after John Gielgud’s continued reference to it thus in the 1996 film Shine, many pianists steer clear of it, although more take it on these days than used to do.

American virtuoso Gary Graffman is said have regretted not learning the concerto in his teenage years when he didn’t “know fear”!

Rachmaninov completed the concerto in Russia towards the end of September 1909, eight years after his much more familiar Second Concerto, and premiered it two months later in New York at end of November. He practiced it on a silent keyboard while sailing to America!

He called it the favourite of his piano concertos and authorised cuts (mainly second and third movements) hoping it would gain popularity, which were regularly made in performances and recordings until more recent times.

Nowadays, it is more common to perform the work without cuts; a complete performance lasting around 40 minutes, if you want to time Sunwook Kim to see if he is playing it in its entirety.

The South Korean pianist won the Leeds International Piano Competition in 2006 at the age of 18 when he played the First Brahms Concerto with The Hallé and Sir Mark Elder, his partners this Friday when, a little enterprisingly, Rachmaninov’s Third Symphony is also on offer!

Completed in 1936, it is generally reckoned as a transitional work in his output. Gone are the romantic excesses of his lush Second Symphony 30 years earlier, though glimpses remain in its leaner style of retrospection and dramatic utterance.

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