The concerto is written in three movements:
Rachmaninoff had already been making a more extensive use of short thematic motifs and strong rhythmic patterns in his Op. 32 Preludes in place of what was called the "unmentionable restlessness" that made his work, especially the concertos, a distressing experience for some musicians. This refinement of musical language, especially in orchestration, went back at least to The Bells and a more astringent tone was already noticeable in songs like "The Raising of Lazarus," Op. 34 No. 6.
This great talent is now in the period of search. Evidently the individuality originally formed by the composer (the culmination of which I consider to be the extraordinary Second Concerto) has for some reason ceased to satisfy the composer.
The searches of a great talent are always interesting. Although personally I cannot consider Rachmaninov a musical phenomenon of the highest order … nevertheless one senses in him a tremendous inner power, a potentiality that some barrier prevents from emerging fully … his artistic personality contains the promise of something greater than he has yet given us.
Other critics also noticed there is a new angularity and pungency in these Études, along with a more severe, concentrated and deepened mode of expression. This was influenced in part by his study of Scriabin’s music for the memorial recitals he played in 1915; this study would bear further fruit in the works he would write after leaving Russia. Anyone who thinks that Rachmaninov lost his way as a composer would do well to pay close attention to these etudes—they show that he was experimenting restlessly well before the Bolshevik revolution.
Had Rachmaninov stayed in Russia and the Bolsheviks’ rise to power never taken place, the Fourth Piano Concerto probably would have been premiered around 1919, eight years earlier than its actual unveiling. It is also possible that in the fertile creative ground of the composer’s estate of Ivanovka, where many of his major pieces grew to fruition, the concerto might have become a wholly different composition, albeit likely one no less adventurous than what eventually came forth.
These jazz elements, most felt, were not consistent with Rachmaninoff's previous brooding and dark themes. What they failed to realize was that, though some aspects of the concerto had their roots in Imperial Russia, the piece had been written mainly in New York and finished in Western Europe. The composer was a sharp, intelligent and sensitive man who had naturally been affected by the sights and sounds of the country in which he had resided for the last several years. Any romantic aura had long dissipated.
In Dresden, where he had done much composing in the past, Rachmaninoff began to think specifically about composing again. He then wrote his friend and fellow exile Nikolai Medtner, "I've already started to work. Am moving slowly. After eight years of touring, he took a sabbatical at the end of 1925, working on the Fourth Concerto. He may have begun this work as early as 1914, according to the April 12 issue of Muzyka. While Rachmaninoff had gone to Ivanova earlier than usual that year, in March, he did not return to Moscow that October with a finished composition, which was his usual custom. All he reportedly had were three sketch books and various separate sheets of manuscript paper. The composer brought this material with him from Russia in 1917; it is now housed in the Library of Congress. He may have also tinkered with sketches in his early years in the United States. Although composition at that time was for the most part out of the question, sketches for the finale of the concerto are on the back of the manuscript sheets of his cadenza for Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2. These sheets are also at the Library of Congress.
Though he made a good start at the piece, he was also interrupted numerous times—not the least of which being the sudden death of his son-in-law, who had been married to his daughter Irina less than a year. With this tragedy and other challenges which arose, Rachmaninoff did not finish the work until the end of the following August. On top of this, Rachmaninoff’s normally self-critical tendencies started working overtime. He wrote to Medtner on September 8:
Just before leaving Dresden I received the copied piano score of my new concerto. I glanced at its size – 110 pages – and I was terrified. Out of sheer cowardice I haven’t yet checked its time. It will have to be performed like the Ring: on several evenings in succession. And I recalled my idle talk with you on the matter of length and the need to abridge, compress, and not be loquacious. I was ashamed!
Rachmaninoff saw two specific problems with the work: the third movement, which he found too drawn out, and the fact that the orchestra is almost never silent throughout the piece (although the latter tendency is fully in evidence in the composer’s Second Concerto, as well). He concluded that he would have to make cuts in the score. Rachmaninoff had made changes to works in the past, after he had heard or performed them. This was the first time he made cuts in a composition before it had been performed. Along with his having been away from the composer's desk for several years, this insecurity in deciding how his ideas should be expressed may account for what some critics considered the fractured nature of the Fourth when they heard it.
Medtner replied five days later:
I cannot agree with you, either in the particular fear that your concerto is too long, or in general on your attitude to length. Actually, your concerto amazed me by the fewness of its pages, considering its importance…. Naturally, there are limitations to the lengths of musical works, just as there are dimensions for canvasses. But within these human limitations, it is not the length of musical compositions that creates an impression of boredom, but it is rather the boredom that creates the impression of length.
The pianist Josef Hofmann, another friend to whom he showed the score, also encouraged him, saying he liked the new concerto extremely well and hoped, while its frequent metric changes might make playing the piece with an orchestra difficult, that it would not prove an obstacle to future performances. "It certainly deserves them from a musical as well as a pianistic point of view.
The concerto was premiered in Philadelphia on March 18, 1927, with the composer as soloist and Leopold Stokowski leading the Philadelphia Orchestra. After a second performance on March 19, Rachmaninov performed the work with Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra in New York on March 22.
In any case, Lawrence Gilman, who had written the program notes for the concerto, complained in the Herald Tribune,
The new work is neither so expressive nor so effective as its famous companion in C minor. Nor is it so resourceful in development. There is thinness and monotony in the treatment of the thematic material of the slow movement, and the finale begins to weary before its end. The imposing, the seductive Rachmaninoff is still the unashamed and dramatizing sentimentalist of the Second Concerto.
The concerto in question is an interminable, loosely knit hodge-podge of this and that, all the way from Liszt to Puccini, from Chopin to Tchaikovsky. Even Mendelssohn enjoys a passing compliment. The orchestral scoring has the richness of nougat and the piano part glitters with innumerable stock trills and figurations. As music it is now weepily sentimental, now of an elfin prettiness, now swelling toward bombast in a fluent orotundity. It is neither futuristic music nor music of the future. Its past was a present in Continental capitals half a century ago. Taken by and large—and it is even longer than it is large—this work could fittingly be described as super-salon music. Mme. Cécile Chaminade might safely have perpetrated it on her third glass of vodka.
The relative modernity of the Fourth Concerto as presented in 1927 did not stem primarily from a higher level of disonance compared to the Second and Third Concertos but from its inherent compositional attitude. Its formal structures were more elliptical than those of its predecessors. Its musical statements shifted more, were less direct. The elusiveness of some themes was heightened by the overt directness of others. Had the recomposed version of Rachmaninoff's First Piano Concerto been better known at that time—the last major work the composer had finished before leaving Russia and one that some critics have suggested should be considered the actual Third Concerto, with its occasional brusqueness and abrupt transitions—listeners would have been better prepared to know what to expect. Nevertheless, while the concerto contained much that was new, it just as fully followed on from what had been done before. Therefore, it should have been exactly what was expected.
Some critics have argued that, as with his Second Piano Sonata, Rachmaninoff got everything about the Fourth Concerto right the first time. They find it extremely disappointing that he yielded to adverse opinion, repeatedly making changes weakening what had initially been a powerfully original work. While these revisions might imply an undue willingness to compromise, the motivation for making those changes may have been incomprehension. Rachmaninoff himself may simply have not fathomed the true nature of this composition, especially when it was first performed. Others have argued that Rachmaninoff did not go far enough in his revisions. They claim that had he tackled the basic structural deficiencies of the work, it might have been received more sympathetically than it actually was.
That fall, Rachmaninoff premiered the revised Fourth, again in Philadephia but with Eugene Ormandy conducting. Edwin Schloss wrote in his review for the Philadelphia Record,
The Fourth Concerto as heard yesterday is a revision of a work first heard here 14 years ago from Rachmaninoff’s hands. The revision, which is extensive, was made last summer and yesterday’s performance was the concerto’s first anywhere in its present form. It turned out to be nobly-meant and darkly romantic music, somewhat fragmentary in shape and typically Rachmaninoffian in spirit. And, with all due respect to the great artist who wrote it, and for all its fine pianism, a trifle dull. Its playing, however, added up to news in any season—news that becomes increasingly miraculous as the years go by, namely, that for all his 68 years, Rachmaninoff is still one of the most virile and brilliant young pianists before the public today.
Ormandy and Rachmaninoff played the revised Fourth, with the Second Symphony, in Washington, Baltimore, and eventually New York, as well as recording the work for RCA. Still, Rachmaninoff was never fully satisfied with the work, continuing to tinker with the orchestration even in the days immediately before his recording session with Ormandy, and lamenting that he did not find the time to reorchestrate the piece to his satisfaction. Many of these changes never found their way into the printed score; however, they have made it onto recordings by other pianists who have studied the composer's own recording, including Vladimir Ashkenazy, Stephen Hough, Leonard Pennario and Earl Wild.
Whatever might be thought about the 1941 revision, there is an elimination of rhetoric and ornamentation. Moreover, there is a sharper demand on involvement from the soloist than in some parts of the Third Concerto. The exposition of the finale is an especially fine instance of the architectural quality of rhythm in the performance of this work. Altogether, the immese virtuosity of the finale on the whole is not showy passagework to please audiences. It is hectic, full of action, unstoppable in its energy and power.
Formally, the manuscript version has been called much closer to the Third Piano Concerto than to its subsequent revisions. After studying all three versions, conducting two and playing one, Ashkenazy concluded that, in principle, he preferred the manuscript edition. His main reason for this was that the Finale worked much better in the manuscript version, since the second subject is repeated. Even so, he does not consider the movement an unqualified success:
It might have been better if Rachmaninoff had rewritten the entire movement. And even as it is, what if Rachmaninoff had not cut it up but just modified the end? Perhaps he could have introduced this wonderful second subject to work it up to a kind of coda—not necessarily as glorifying as in the Third Piano Concerto, but still elegantly (because the harmonies are absolutely wonderful there) and end brilliantly. Maybe that would have made it.
Notable in the manuscript version is a more violent set of musical contrasts. Especially in the Finale, these juxtapositions result in some strident episodes absent from either of the revisions. Because of Rachmaninoff's removeal of these contrasts, the manuscript has been called a missed culmination in Rachmaninoff's development. Instead, he started writing in clearer musical forms, like those in the Third Symphony and Symphonic Dances.
Also, in the Finale, the appearance of the Dies Irae is not a cause of fright or dread. Instead it prominently heads the second subject, which in both musical gesture and Dies-Irae-related content greatly resembles the triumphant second subject from the Finale of Rachmaninoff's Second Symphony. While this similarity may not have been intended, a reference to the coda from The Bells at the end of the Finale's exposition section may be more deliberate. None of these instances were left in the composer's 1941 edition.