Gutiérrez’ Strong, Understated Chopin and Schumann

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CHOPIN: 24 Preludes. SCHUMANN: Fantasie / Horacio Gutiérrez, pianist / Bridge 9479

I can’t recall ever having heard Horacio Gutiérrez before, although I heard one of his teachers, William Masselos, and know of one of his other teachers, Serge Tarnowsky, who taught Vladimir Horowitz in Kiev. Judging by his playing, Gutiérrez is much closer to the style of Masselos than Horowitz. He has a full, rich tone and what I call a “big-boned playing style,” which is how I remember Masselos (I heard Masselos in person in 1969 as well as on records). But I never heard Masselos play Chopin, and certainly not the Preludes which always seem to bring out the wispiest, drippiest tendencies in pianists. My own personal favorite performance of them is that by Shura Cherkassky (read my tribute to him here), but Cherkassky had the gift of being able to play poetically without sacrificing tensile strength, as did Alfred Cortot, Nadia Reisenberg, Dinu Lipatti, Artur Rubinstein and Barbara Nissman. Except for the much richer piano tone, possibly the result of modern digital recording techniques, I’d say that Gutiérrez’ Chopin compares very favorably indeed to that of Lipatti in particular.

None of the Preludes are played with sentimentality, but they are played with feeling. Not white-hot passion, mind you, but the kind of feeling that smolders under the surface,. In several of the minor-key Preludes, I almost felt as if I were listening to really good Rachmaninov: he brings out a strong Slavic feeling in Chopin, reminding us that Poland—although a Western European country—is the gateway to Russia. Speaking of Chopin pianists, I should also mention the now-forgotten Raoul Koczalski, whose Chopin playing has been discredited because of the excessive amount of rubato and rallentando he injected into the music, which he always insisted that his teacher had learned from Chopin himself. Koczalski’s playing, too, was big-boned and full-blooded, not the wispy, floating sound we get from too many pianists. For that matter so was Josef Lhevinne’s, and one of Gutiérrez’ teachers, Adele Marcus, was a pupil of Lhevinne. (I had the privilege of taking lessons from Frederick Chang, a pupil of Rosina Lhevinne.)

Perhaps the best one-word description of Gutiérrez’ playing, particularly in the Chopin, is “smoldering.” He never quite bursts out with excitement, but there is a distinct pleasure in hearing a pianist “capping the geyser,” so to speak. The pressure builds up from underneath, as it were, and almost explodes into the open, but only in rare moments do we feel the emotions spewing to the surface. Most of the time they are the subtext of his interpretations.

Gutiérrez is a bit more emotionally effusive in the Schumann Fantasie, as well he should be. Schumann was a composer who wore his emotions on his sleeve, but once again structure is paramount in the presentation of his music. I have to admit, however, that for my taste this performance of the Fantasie just missed the exaltation of Leonard Shure (Bridge 9374), Daniel Gortler (Roméo 7281/82) and especially Sophia Agranovich (Centaur 3504), which I recently reviewed. Capping the geyser doesn’t quite work with Schumann; you have to uncap it and let the emotions out, and this Gutiérrez was not quite able to do. Perhaps he plays it differently in concert; I do not know; but on this recording, at least, it is a good performance but not quite a great one. It has structure, a sense of majesty and a gorgeous tone, however, and so is not entirely without interest.

A mixed review, then. The bottom line is that Gutiérrez is certainly a pianist worth hearing, particularly in the Chopin, and I look forward to hearing him play other repertoire in the future.

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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