In his book Rachmaninoff: Life, Works, Recordings, Max Harrison states that the virtuoso English pianist Cyril Smith once said that Rachmaninoff "could with his left hand stretch C–E-flat–G–C–G and the right could manage C (second finger)–E–G–C–E (thumb under)." Try it yourself. This is an amazing stretch!
Reconstructing Rachmaninoff's case
Around January 1900 Sergei Rachmaninoff went into hypnotherapy with Nikolai Vladimirovich Dahl. He had not composed large scores ever since the fiasco of his First Symphony and the therapy was mainly directed at overcoming this problem. Treatments occurred daily over a period that cannot have lasted longer than three months or so. The patient was cured. In gratitude Rachmaninoff dedicated his Second Piano Concerto to Dahl.
Recorded by Willem Mengelberg
Piano Concerto No. 3
Mengelberg's later inscription reads: 'Welt-Uraufführung mit den Componist in London Philharm. Society. 21 Jan 1912-13 (damals nur ¾ stunde probiert)' (Worldpremiere (sic!) with the composer in London Philharm. Society. (rehearsal at the time but 45 minutes)) The score also holds tempo markings for performances (and subsequent recording) by Walter Gieseking in ink. Gieseking provided these by letter, because there was a lack of rehearsal time.
Thanks to the gramophone several of Rachmaninoff's compositions have been preserved in his own performances. However, it has been suggested in various sources that Rachmaninoff's style of piano playing underwent a dramatic change after 1917 that affected his sound and tempi. This suggestion fits in remarkably well with the image Soviet musicology wanted to create of a Rachmaninoff, who was supposedly unable to find peace and quiet for his art in a capitalist society. But is it true? Did Rachmaninoff's tempi change after 1917?