Two Cheers for Rach 3

If classical music is dying, as we know must be the case, for The New York Times tells us so on a regular basis, its death spasms are certainly momentous. First the Four Seasons, then the Three Tenors, the Monks, Anonymous Four, Mozart covers by Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea, and now Shine. Young David’s nemesis in the movie, Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, composed for an American tour in 1909, has entered popular culture like Mozart’s “Elvira Madigan” Concerto and God reaching out to Man on the Sistine Ceiling. Reviewing a PBS program on intelligent dogs, a television columnist jokes that while some dogs may be smart, his lhasa apso always breaks down in the middle of “Rach 3.”

Worse (I suppose worse), the Times critic, Bernard Holland, has launched an attack on this unfortunate score, on its very substance, not just on its baleful use (and abuse) as a final hurdle in piano competitions. Trashy, says this critic: “a cozy piece of schlock.” Are we keeping classical music alive for this? and so on and so forth, to fill up last year’s Sunday-before-Christmas leader.

It is asking a lot of the Rachmaninov Third to bear the burden of standing in for classical music tout court. Amen; Holland to the contrary, it’s a strong work, though not without its failures, a work of real distinction, modeling ecstasy and resignation, potency, play, despair, and so on in the ineluctable way of all music and with the refinement of classical music. It marks, incidentally, a great advance over Rach 2, another concerto that has known the embrace of popular culture, or at least a little hug. Rach 3 must have its day in court, even though the absence of a specified indictment has to make life more difficult for the defense.

Still, the prosecution’s case is fairly predictable. When concertos are hauled into court one usual charge is indecent exposure, excessive display of virtuosity at the expense of more respectable musical values. Weakness of form is another common accusation—for that is what Donald Tovey, he of the three B’s, meant when he referred sniffingly to “fantasia” form in Liszt’s concertos and “a lighter art-form” even in Mendelssohn’s. Thirdly, complaints are entered about tawdry melodies (“weepy tunes”) repeated over and over again.

Of these charges the last is the most subjective, hence the hardest to refute, and also the most contingent on the times. Vivaldi was considered vulgar by eighteenth-century English snobs, as were Puccini and Richard Strauss earlier in the twentieth century. Given the conditions of the arts in the here and now, stale critical labels like vulgar and tawdry, weepy and schlock should be used with the greatest caution, if at all. That said, in Rachmaninov’s Third it is presumably the ending that offends the most in this regard: the soaring melody, orchestrated to the hilt, that keeps expanding itself in ecstatic gestures of transcendence and …

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