Rodriguez's Rachmaninoff has silken textures

September 24, 1995|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Rachmaninoff, Sonata No. 2 (opus 36), "Morceaux de fantasie" (opus 3) and "Chopin Variations" (opus 22), performed by pianist Santiago Rodriguez (Elan 82248); Rachmaninoff, 10 Preludes (opus 23), Three Nocturnes, "Song Without Words" and "Corelli Variations" (opus 42), performed by Rodriguez (Elan 82250); Rachmaninoff, Concerto No. 2, "Paganini Rhapsody" and several pieces for solo piano, performed by pianist Benno Moiseiwitsch, London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by (in Concerto No. 2) Walter Goehr and (in the "Rhapsody") Basil Cameron (APR 5505)

Several years ago Santiago Rodriguez won the 92nd Street Y's Shura Cherkassky Award, a prize that recognizes the best piano recital in New York City in that season. The award is named after the Baltimore-born Cherkassky, now in his mid-80s, who is still performing and who continues to be counted among the world's great pianists. But Cherkassky did not begin to win the recognition he deserved until he was nearly 70, and I fear that may be Rodriguez's fate. This Cuban-born, American-trained musician, who lives down the road in College Park, is among the finest pianists in the world, and no one -- except for a few piano aficionados -- seems to realize the dimensions of his talent.

Rodriguez's cycle of Rachmaninoff's solo music is the first by an American, and it promises to be the best on record. His performance of the B-flat minor Sonata is both brilliant and grand, and it ranks among the finest versions of the composer's 1931 revision of this 1913 work. The same can be said about his performance of the "Corelli Variations" -- the composer's last (1930) and perhaps finest work for solo piano. Rodriguez's interpretation is rivaled only by the three versions recorded by Vladimir Ashkenazy. And it deserves a place alongside Ashkenazy's because it is so different from the Russian's. Instead of Ashkenazy's blazing fire, Rodriguez opts for silken textures lighted by candles. This is not to say that he eschews power -- his playing in the seventh variation, variations 25-27 and, particularly, the hysterical penultimate variation 19 may shake your fillings loose.

These discs also include such rarely heard items as the 1987-1988 Nocturnes, the lengthy "Chopin Variations," the complete "Morceaux de fantasie," and the 1987 "Song Without Words." With only a few exceptions, you won't find better Rachmaninoff.

One of those exceptions can be found in the APR reissue of the recordings of Rachmaninoff's music made by Benno Moiseiwitsch in the years 1937-1943. Although almost forgotten today, Moiseiwitsch (1890-1963) was one of the finest pianists of the 20th century. He was a great friend of Rachmaninoff and the pianist whose performances of his music the composer admired more than any other. In fact, there were some Moiseiwitsch performances that the composer much preferred to his own -- those of the Second Concerto, the "Paganini Rhapsody" and, particularly, Rachmaninoff's own transcription of the Scherzo from Mendelssohn's "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

The latter is usually considered among the five or 10 greatest piano recordings ever made. Like most of the great pianists of the first half of the 20th century, Moiseiwitsch was an emotionally warm player, who used his brilliant technique to achieve lyrical expressiveness. But among the things that made him unique was a floating right-hand singing touch that lost none of its penetration in works -- such as this Scherzo -- that require very rapid finger work. This miraculous recording of four minutes of the most treacherous music ever written for the piano was made in a single take without a single fluffed note.

The other performances on the disc deserve their stature among aficionados: Performances of the Second Concerto and the Rhapsody that have no agenda other than that of beautifully and faithfully reflecting the composer's wishes; and several amazing performances of the Preludes, including one of the B minor piece from the opus 32 set in which Moiseiwitsch penetrates more deeply into the heart of Rachmaninoff's melancholy than any pianist before or since.

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