Sergei Rachmaninoff was born in 1873 in Russia. He studied at the Moscow Conservatory. He was one of the most brilliant pianistic talents at the Conservatory and he turned toward composition achieving early fame with his Prelude in C-sharp Minor, Op. 3, No. 2. In 1909 he began touring the United States, for which he wrote his monumentally difficult Third Concerto. After the death of his classmate Scriabin, Rachmaninoff performed an all-Scriabin program that included the Fifth Sonata. Prokofiev rejected his reading of the Sonata, missing the languor with which Scriabin had composed the work.
The 1917 Revolution impoverished his family, so the pianist set about learning a repertoire expansive enough for an international pianistic career, never slackening from then until months before his death. His performance and playing were intense. Rachmaninoff established a reputation as the greatest pianist-composer of the twentieth century.
His analytic interpretation of works insisted on a musical syntax that was precise and clear, everything building to a climax in the piece. Rachmoninoff considered his performance a failure if he was unable as an interpreter to make that climax clear to the audience and grieved after such concerts.
Rachmaninoff worked diligently at his craft. He practiced with relentless patience at a daily regimen of scales, arpeggios, octaves, and trills. He was a perfectionist, highly critical of his own performances and recordings. For example, he repeated his difficult interpretation of Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream Scherzo forty-nine times until he got the results he wanted.
Rachmaninoff has been called the most fascinating pianist of all since Busoni. To play the composer's works requires formidable muscular control. His compositions are often dense in number of notes per measure, with a rich texture of counterpoints and effects. He loved the bells of Moscow, for example, and he exploited the bass of his piano to that effect. For any pianist attempting his works, listening to Rachmaninoff's recordings is paramount to learning them. He is noted for clear, concise control of phrasing and infallible chordal technique.