CHOPIN: Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor, Op. 21. RACHMANINOFF: Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18.
Santiago Rodriguez, pianist; Berliner Symphoniker/ Stephen Gunzenhauser, cond.

Élan Recordings 82402  (F) [DDD]  TT: 65:50  

R.D. foreword: Santiago Rodriguez and I have been fellow Marylanders and friends ever since he and his producer/wife, Natasha (nÈe Natalia) visited in the summer of 1986 to tape an interview, at the instigation of Joel Flegler, the Godfather of Fanfare magazine. I had resigned after six years of oar-pulling in Joel's galley, but earlier on he'd sent a cassette of Santiago's debut recording -- the Ginastera sonatas -- that bowled me over. However, for some arcane reason, my recorder failed to preserve what was said that afternoon. Someone else did the interview later on, by phone, but we became and have remained close friends. I've written program notes for Élan Recordings (how many I don't remember in this season of Senior Moments, owing to an otherwise salubrious new medicine). I've shared holiday meals at their table, both in College Park and more recently in Upper Marlboro. We've celebrated birthdays and exchanged gifts.  Natasha calls periodically with the latest crisis that's befallen: she's Russian, and ever so tragically dramatic, but that doesn't get in her way as a producer or as an editor par excellence. She founded and is the heartbeat of Élan. As for Santiago, he was born in the same Cuban city of Cárdenas that lately gave headline-makers little Elian Gonzalez. He was sent to the U.S. by his parents at age 8, when Fidel Castro (a really bad Leo) fought has way to supreme power, and has been defoliating Cuba ever since. Santiago is, in the view of Harold Schonberg as well as myself (pace Horacio Gutierrez), the best pianist that island nation has produced since Jorge Bolet. I thought you should know, up front.

Having recorded "3"s by Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev in Bulgaria, the Rodriguezes now couple "2"s by Rachmaninoff and Chopin—this time in Berlin with Stephen Gunzenhauser, the stolid conductor of Delaware's Wilmington-based Staatsorkester. You've seen his name on various Naxos CDs over the years, but here he's the most phlegmatic of four conductors that Santiago has recorded with since 1989 (the others: George Manahan, in concertos by Castelnuovo-Tedesco and Surinach with the Richmond Sinfonia; Emil Tabakov, in the aforesaid "3"s, plus Liszt (1), Tchaikovsky (1) and Grieg concertos with the Sofia Philharmonic; and William Hudson, in film concertos with the Fairfax (Virginia) Symphony). The Berliner Symphoniker, on the other hand, is the best of four orchestras Élan has engaged to date. Founded in 1966, it is one of eight currently playing in Germany's repatriated capital city, of which three have "symphony" or "symphony orchestra" in their titles, although pacemakers remain the Berliner Philharmoniker and Berliner Staatskapelle (the latter Daniel Barenboim's orchestra at the Deutsche Oper).

This Symphoniker is a good orchestra, strings outstandingly so by second-tier standards in Berlin, although their collective sound as recorded by three German engineers (one Chief with two Assistants), in the Konzertsaal at Siemens Villa, clots in the climaxes. Pinpoint-locales that one enjoys in quieter, less heavily scored passages become a lump in loud portions—not blurry, luckily, yet shoveled together. Playing is disciplined but too seldom poetic under Gunzenhauser; he keeps everyone together, say that for him, but no one sounds inspired or uplifted. They are doing a professional gig, period.

Rodriguez all the while plays his heart out—a spelunking, sophisticated take on Rachmaninoff, which seemingly every pianist with a recording contract has committed to discs of one size and speed or another over decades. This reading is so musical, in truth, that one tends not to notice his virtuosity. He neither attacks nor flagellates the piece; it is an intimate communion, rather than an outside-looking-in, bang-the-drum-loudly performance. In Rachmaninoff, as recorded, piano sound gets a little xylophonic on top (it needed three engineers to do that to Rodriguez's tonal solidity even at high speeds, in filagreed passagework?). But Chopin is spared, perhaps because the composer's accompaniment defers to the piano.

There is no shortage of Chopin Seconds, several of which are treasurable (Yevgeny Kissin's at a tender age, for example, which anchors my collection). But this one has a quality I remember only in Alfred Cortot's between-wars recording, when his technique was at its peak and his artistic being at the disposal of Chopin. Give Élan an "A" for completeness; the orchestral exposition is uncut (although sometimes cut-and-dried, Gunzenhauser fashion). The solo performance, however, communes with the composer on a level no one else in this enterprise approaches.  Except for the Second Sonata recorded live at the 1981 Cliburn Competition, Chopin hasn't been on Rodriguez's CD menu heretofore, but one certainly hopes to hear more, all the while he pursues a traversal of the complete Rachmaninoff, unacompanied as well as concerted. Try the F-minor Concerto's slow movement—the acid test in this piece, expressively; it should give you a frisson or two. And when was the last time you had one of those?

R.D. (April 2000)