By Lawrence Budmen

Sergei Rachmaninoff is considered to be a conservative composer - a romantic in the manner of Tchaikovsky in the post romantic 20th century. Yet his "Piano Concerto No.4 in G Minor," Opus 40 reveals the influence of such modernists as Stravinsky and Shostakovich. This dark, astringent score is one of the composer's most imaginative works. The music requires a soloist who is a pianistic powerhouse. On December 18, 2002 Horacio Gutierrez performed the rarely heard score with the Florida Philharmonic Orchestra at Miami's Gusman Center.

When Gutierrez first came on the international music scene three decades ago, he immediately established himself as a brilliant technician and an impressive exponent of the virtuoso show pieces of Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, Ravel and Gershwin. Lurking beneath the surface of his often dazzling performances of this repertoire, there seemed to be something deeper - a poetic and sensitive musician. In recent seasons Gutierrez has been making a major career transition. He has been devoting his orchestral appearances to the piano concerti of Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms. These scores require a high degree of musicality, expressivity, and imagination as well as solid technical command of the instrument. Last season he gave an electrifying performance of Beethoven's "Emperor" Concerto with the Florida Philharmonic under the direction of Maximiano Valdes.

The Rachmaninoff 4th Concerto found him playing with all his customary brilliance and virtuosity combined with spacious lyricism and elegance. The opening Allegro was full of musical vitality. The composer's brilliant and difficult writing for the solo piano was delivered with clarity and rhythmic pungency. The movement's abrupt conclusion was appropriately brusque. Gutierrez spun out the haunting theme of the Largo like an intoxicating musical aperitif. Here was a kaleidoscope of pianistic colors delicately etched onto the music's dark glitter. The concluding Allegro vivace was dazzling. Gutierrez played the rapid fire bravura writing with note perfect accuracy and brilliance. The repetitive octaves at the conclusion had great force and power. He did not neglect the music's subtext. The final movement is a demonic dance of death. For all the virtuosity of his playing, Gutierrez found the sensitive and disturbing character of the music. This was an eloquent performance of one of Rachmaninoff's most sophisticated and rewarding scores.

Guest conductor Paul Nadler missed some of the visceral excitement in the music. He captured the operatic quality of the second movement, but the finale did not crackle with rhythmic energy. The composer's lean harmonic writing was made to sound strangely neutral and bland. There was some beautiful, silky string playing in the Largo movement.

Nadler led a neat and tidy performance of Hector Berlioz's "Overture to Beatrice and Benedict." There was a fine lyrical flow to the slow introduction, but where was the comedic sparkle in the allegro? Berlioz's opera is based on Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing." The overture is a French equivalent of a Rossini curtain raiser. This performance lacked the requisite Rossinian effervescence. 

Nadler's performance of Beethoven's "Symphony No.3 in E-Flat Major," Opus 55 ("Eroica") missed the music's heroic quality. The opening Allegro con brio lacked urgency; the string playing needed more incisiveness. The funeral march of the Adagio seemed interminable. The movement needed a greater sense of musical line and flow. The Scherzo: Allegro vivace was marred by missed notes and poor intonation in the horns and woodwinds. The Finale: Allegro vivace is a set of variations on a theme that Beethoven used numerous times. The "Contradances" and the ballet score "The Creatures of Prometheus" were among the works that featured the same thematic material. Nadler conducted the variations as a series of individual pieces rather than a coherent musical statement. The always problematic coda sounded prosaic.

Earlier in the season the Florida Philharmonic played superbly under some talented guest conductors (Christopher Wilkins, Rumon Gamba, Maximiano Valdes). The mediocre playing at this concert made it hard to believe that it was the same orchestra. The program's saving grace was a rare Rachmaninoff gem in a splendid performance by one of today's leading piano virtuosos.

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