Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto is considered one of the most technically challenging works ever composed for the instrument. For virtuosic pianist Garrick Ohlsson, it had been a long-time friend.

"I learned this piece when I was 15. My teacher gave it to me," said Ohlsson, who together with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra led by Marin Alsop, performs the 20th century masterpiece as part of Alsop's "Off the Cuff" series Friday at Strathmore. "This piece is a particular favorite because ... it's inspired and has enormous range and goes from melancholy to great human triumph and joy at its end."

Indeed, Rachmaninoff composed his Third Piano Concerto in 1909 in preparation for his first American tour. His intent was to make a lasting impression on American audiences with what Ohlsson refers to as "a real test for a pianist, providing everything that is required of a virtuoso from the simplest lyricism to the most complex, thundering cascades of octaves and chords and complex counterpoint."

To the listener, however, the piece is quintessentially Rachmaninoff.

BSO "Off the Cuff Series": Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto
Where: Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda
When: 8:15 p.m. Friday
Info: $39 to $72; 410-783-8000; bsomusic.org

"He was asked about his extraordinarily high standard of performance and how he achieved that," Ohlsson continued. "Rachmaninoff said, 'Sadly the horizon is always receding.' In other words, the better you make it, the better you can get. You climb the mountain and you realize there are more mountains to climb and the horizon keeps getting farther away! "I think it's what one of my teachers used to call 'designed dissatisfaction.' "

Ohlsson, on the other hand, views a high performance standard as one in which the musician always strives for perfection.

"I think that's why we work so terribly hard as musicians," he explained. "You can't always achieve inspiration, but you can achieve a certain degree of excellence."

Ohlsson, a prolific recording artist in addition to his numerous guest appearances each season with orchestras worldwide, consistently puts the music ahead of his ego, believing that we are all in something bigger than ourselves.

"I want people to know how wonderful the Rachmaninoff Third Concerto is. It will really turn me on if they get excited about the piece," he said.