This was actually Rachmaninov’s second attempt at a piano concerto. In 1889 he had begun but abandoned a concerto in C minor (the same key, incidentally, in which he would later write his Second Piano Concerto). He wrote Natalya Skalon on 26 March 1891, “I am now composing a piano concerto. Two movements are already written; the last movement is not written, but is composed; I shall probably finish the whole concerto by the summer, and then in the summer orchestrate it” He finished composing and scoring the piece on July 6 and was satisfied with what he had written. The first movement was premiered on 17 March 1892 at the Moscow Conservatoire, with the composer as soloist and Vasily Safonov conducting. This may have been the only time the composer played the concerto in its original form, although Siloti, to whom it is dedicated, programmed it to play himself on several occasions.
Composition students were usually advised to base their efforts on a specific model for their first exercises in new forms. In Rachmaninoff’s case this was the Grieg Piano Concerto, which was a favorite work of his and one which he had been familiar from Siloti practicing it at the Rachmaninoff household during the spring and summer of 1890 for future concerts. Rachmaninoff adapted the entire musical structure of the outer movements to the Grieg concerto, literally building his music into it. With all his other concertos, Rachmaninoff would prove more enterprising.