Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3, one of the most wickedly challenging works in the classical repertoire, is practically part of Ann Schein’s DNA.
The renowned pianist has been performing the piece for nearly 60 years, starting with her debut in Mexico City in 1957, and she will play it again this weekend with Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra and Maestro Stuart Malina.
Schein’s performance will be part of the seventh and final Masterworks program of HSO’s 2015-16 season. The all-Russian affair also features Dmitry Kabelevsky’s 1940 circus-like orchestral suite “The Comedians,” and from 1926 the sensational Symphony No. 1 in F minor from a very young Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-75).
In a bit of a break with tradition, the Rachmaninoff concerto will be moved to the second half of the program, in part due to its 40-minute length but also underscoring Malina’s respect for Schein’s work.
“The incomparable Ann Schein is one of my most favorite guest artists that I’ve ever worked with,” the conductor said. The pianist also performed with HSO in 2014, when she received a resounding ovation for her work on Frederic Chopin’s lustrous Piano Concerto No. 2.
“Rach 3,” as the Rachmaninoff Third is sometimes called, is so challenging that the pianist to whom it was dedicated, Josef Hofmann, never played it. Another famous soloist, Gary Graffman, once lamented that he had not learned the piece as a student, when he was “still too young to know fear.”
The piece fell out of favor over the years until the great pianist Vladimir Horowitz (1903-89), a close friend of Rachmaninoff (1873-1943), began to champion it starting in the 1930s.
Schein is also at home in the virtuosic world of Rachmaninoff’s Third.
“There are tremendous technicalities and of course considerable stamina involved,” Schein said of the three-movement concerto, composed by the Russian in 1909. “It’s inside me, but whether my fingers and muscles will cooperate fully, we’ll see.”
Certainly, there’s reason for optimism.
Schein estimates she’s played the “Rach3” more than 100 times in some 42 countries, including her debut concert in 1957 in Mexico City, when she was just 17. She played it again to great acclaim with the New York Philharmonic in 1960, the same year she also made a famous recording of the work for Kapp Records.
The 76-year-old artist also has performed it as recently as 2013 in Brazil.
Not a bad track record with a piece that her legendary teacher, Mieczyslaw Munz of the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, gave her mostly as an exercise for improving her hand strength and flexibility.
“Rachmaninoff had gigantic hands and so did my teacher,” Schein said. “He gave this piece to me when I was maybe 14. He told me that I would never play it, and he was totally sincere.”
And totally wrong, as it turned out. With her taskmaster teacher’s help, Schein developed her own fingering techniques for the piece that allow her to play it flawlessly despite lacking Rachmaninoff’s digital wingspan.
“He had a magical way of adjusting the fingerings for each hand,” she said of Munz, who died in 1976. “He could redistribute between the hands to facilitate the technical difficulties.”