Two pianists shine in Rachmaninoff's Sonata No. 1

May 15, 1994|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

Rachmaninoff, Sonata No. 1 in D minor (opus 28) and Variations on a Theme of Chopin (opus 22), performed by pianist Boris Berezovsky (Teldec 4509-90890). Rachmaninoff, Sonata No. 1 in D minor (opus 28) and Thirteen Preludes (opus 32), performed by pianist Santiago Rodriguez (Elan CD 82244).

This is an embarrassment of riches. For years Rachmaninoff's First Sonata has fared poorly on records and in the concert hall. The work is gigantic -- almost as long the Concerto No. 3 -- and horrendously difficult. Few of the great Rachmaninoff interpreters -- including the composer himself, Horowitz, Richter, Cliburn and Ashkenazy -- have shown interest in expending the time and energy necessary to keep it in their fingers. It's hard to blame them. While the piece is better organized than the Sonata No. 2, its length -- particularly in the 15-minute long finale -- all but precludes success. In the finale the composer's forearm-straining and knuckle-breaking virtuosic phrases must be repeated so frequently that even a great artist runs the risk of boring an audience.

In the past 30 years or so, only John Ogdon and Alexis Weissenberg have been interested in the piece. And Ogdon's old RCA recording is long out of print, and by the time Weissenberg got around to recording it for Deutsche Grammophon in 1990, he did not play it with his earlier fire and brilliance.

Desperately in need of a single decent recording, we now must choose between two tremendous ones. Both the Cuban-born Rodriguez, who lives in College Park, and the Russian-born Berezovsky, who now lives in Spain, have the fingers to play this music, the minds to make a coherent experience of it and the hearts to make it affecting. They are somewhat different kinds of readings.

Berezovsky, 25, plays Rachmaninoff in the now dominant style that Cliburn first introduced in the late 1950s. His relaxed, assured playing, while it does not shortchange the music's heroism, emphasizes its lyricism. Rodriguez, 40, performs the Sonata in the way -- to judge from his recordings -- that one imagines the composer himself did before he lost interest in the work.

Rodriguez's utterly unsentimental playing drives the music with a sense of ferocious destiny. This is not to say his playing lacks feeling, only that, like Rachmaninoff's own, it lacks anything resembling self-indulgence.

If I had to choose between them, I would select Rodriguez. He has been programming an enormous amount of the composer's solo pieces in the past few years and his experience shows in the way he is able to persuade the listener -- as Berezovsky does not always do -- that the Sonata is not over-long. (In fact, Rodriguez' performance is about four minutes faster than Berezovsky.)

The couplings are excellent: Rodriguez performs the opus 32 preludes in a heroic, turbulent manner and Berezovsky does a lovely job in making a case for the composer's neglected Variations on a theme of Chopin. But listeners should keep in mind that a second all-Rachmaninoff CD of Rodriguez, featuring the Sonata No. 2 and the same Chopin Variations, is planned for future release.

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