Sergei Rachmaninoff is one of those composers about whom one can argue for hours. Some regard him as the emperor of schmaltz and tear-soaked melodies, the man responsible for such "tunes" as "Full Moon and Empty Arms" (the middle movement of his beloved second piano concerto transformed into a popular song). Others laud his considerable understanding of the piano's capabilities; Rachmaninoff's concertos and preludes mine a wealth of dynamic shadings and harmonic weaves. Yet for all the glorious interpretations of these works, the debate continues.
Pianist Morton Estrin, who devoted his entire recital Sunday evening at the National Gallery's East Garden Court to Rachmaninoff's 24 preludes, is obviously a great champion of this wrenchingly romantic music. Visually, Estrin fits the music wonderfully -- dressed in tails, sporting a thick beard and shoulder-length mane, he fairly plunged into the keyboard, summoning up wave after wave of chromatic fervor and chordal tumult. Employing the pedals to maximum -- and sometimes muddying -- effect, he painted tonal portraits of longing, anger and overflowing passion.
Though Estrin's technical gifts are undeniable and his music thrilled the large crowd, this listener had some difficulty digesting such a deluge of Rachmaninoff. Unlike the keyboard works of Chopin, Debussy and Bach, these preludes seemed to cancel one another out when presented in such profusion.