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.
If it was Horowitz who first conquered the Rach 3, it was Cliburn who liberated it. This untouched transcript of Cliburn's Carnegie Hall performance, recorded shortly after the pianist's return from his triumph at the first Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, demonstrated that the terse, driven way of Horowitz and his imitators was not the only way to interpret the Rach 3. Cliburn was the first pianist (in the West, at least) to perform the composer's alternative first movement cadenza -- the first 55 bars of which are a Himalayan range of chordal writing that adds substantially to the concerto's mass (and magnificence). Cliburn made the concerto more spacious and lyrical than any pianist before him. And he made the bravura writing -- even at high
velocities and dynamic levels -- perpetually songful.
Byron Janis, 1961
London Symphony conducted by Antal Dorati, Mercury 432 759.
In the aftermath of Cliburn, Janis' brilliant account was overshadowed. This was unfortunate. Janis, Horowitz's greatest protege, gave a performance that was brilliant in the steely manner of his master, without the latter's annoying mannerisms and with a seductive lyricism that was all Janis' own.
Evgeny Mogilevsky, 1964
Moscow Philharmonic conducted by Kiril Kondrashin. Melodiya SUCD 10-00656.
Mogilevsky is likely to be the pianist least familiar to readers. But musicians such as pianist Garrick Ohlsson and conductor David Zinman swear that this performance by the then-18-year-old Russian is the greatest ever recorded. (It's also the personal favorite of this writer.) Mogilevsky's has all the virtues of Cliburn's great account, and it's even more exciting.
Alexis Weissenberg, 1968
Chicago Symphony conducted by Georges Pretre. RCA Gold Seal 09026-61 3961.
Weissenberg was a master of distortion: He plays loud when the score tells him to play soft; he slows down when directed to speed up; and he explodes at a gallop when instructed to maintain the tempo. But Weissenberg's playing is colossal -- even if its colossalness is often that of an iceberg -- and the final moments are perhaps the most adrenalin-charged on record.
Vladimir Ashkenazy, 1976
Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy. RCA 6524-2-RG.
Ashkenazy has made five splendid recordings of the Rach 3 -- four as a pianist and one as a conductor (with pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet) -- and this is the best of them. It is a leisurely account -- even slower than those of Cliburn and Mogilevsky -- but exciting, nonetheless. There is a basic sanity and sense of proportion in almost everything this pianist does; and these qualities were never achieved with as much majesty as they are here.
Martha Argerich, 1982
Radio Orchestra of Berlin conducted by Riccardo Chailly. Philips 446 673.
If Ashkenazy's is the sanest version, Argerich's is the craziest. Adjectives such as incendiary and volcanic do not suffice to describe her playing in this live recording -- nothing less than orgasmic will do. Although she kept this piece in her repertory for only a few years, Argerich is the only woman who ever achieved success with the Rach 3. Her manic intensity is such that it makes the Horowitz version seem serene by comparison, and her pulverizing power makes most of her male rivals seem like little boys.
Leif Ove Andsnes, 1995
Oslo Philharmonic conducted by Paavo Berglund. Virgin VC 5 45173.
This young Norwegian -- only 25 at the time of this live recording -- plays the way one imagines the young Rachmaninoff did. This is a fleet, unsentimental and honest performance, in which the pianist's ferocious power suggests that of a huge (and very hungry) jungle cat.
Pub Date: 3/16/97