Noble and commanding, the Gutierrez renditions of two Romantic staples should bring repeated delights.

CHOPIN: 24 Preludes, Op. 28; SCHUMANN: Fantasie in C Major, Op. 17 – Horacio Gutierrez, p. – Bridge 9479, 65:56 (10/7/16)  [Distr. by Albany] ****:

Horatio Gutierrez (b. 1948) addresses (rec. 26-28 March 2015) two of the Romantic pillars of keyboard composition, the 1838 Chopin Preludes, and the 1839 Fantasie of Robert Schumann, works whose rhetoric and exalted gestures – along with the Liszt b minor Sonata – virtually embody the spirit of the age. The Chopin Preludes provide a kind of Rosetta Stone for the Romantic sensibility, 24 pieces in all the major and minor tonalities whose one concession to the Classical form lies in their following the circle of fifths. Chopin had taken a copy of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier with him to Majorca, and he studiously absorbed much of Bach’s concentrated lyricism and contrapuntal models, but he eschewed any additional component to his preludes: none of them attaches to an ensuing fugue or fantasia. Instead, the mighty drama Chopin effects lies within the core of each miniature – say, in the f-sharp minor – whose angry figures relent only in the last measures. True, several of the pieces form diptychs whose last note dovetails into the succeeding number, and several form a dramatic juxtaposition by contrast, like the C Major and a minor preludes, which move from symmetry to anxious disjunction. The F-sharp Major provides a nocturne that provides solace for the pungent mazurka or toccata that the g-sharp minor embodies. The immediate contrast between the F Major water-piece and the heroically demonic d minor makes the latter’s Dorian Gray association eternal.

Gutierrez plays these compressed miniatures with affection but without affectation. We come to admire the firm solidity of his trill and the power of his often chromatic bass line. His articulation remains – in comparatively brisk tempos – as clear as the clarion bells we expect in Russian music – and we hear them toll at the finale of the d minor. The large Prelude in D-flat Major “Raindrop” does not suffer bloated exaggeration nor glib superficiality in its outer sections, while the ominous trio presents a kind of dark, funereal procession that likely inspired Mussorgsky. Immediately subsequent to this powerful nocturne comes the explosive b-flat minor, opening with six devastating chords and mad flight into an abyss worthy of the Berlioz ride in his Le Damnation de Faust. The lyrical mystery of the No. 17 in A-flat Major may never be solved, but something in its drooping, nostalgic notes that serve as an epilogue to the musical phrases holds a tragedy beyond words. So, too, the Prelude in f minor bears a wicked weight compressed into a small space; but no less concentrated, the c minor expresses an untold, noble grief in twelve measures. More liquid and processional motion occurs within the B-flat Major, rife with pre-Debussy sonority. We might take a moment to applaud what Gutierrez does with the savage g minor Prelude, with its stop-on-a-dime agogics.

Increasingly, as the years pass, the vivid allusions to Beethoven’s Op. 98 that pass through Schumann’s monumental C Major Fantasy have become more vital to my own appreciation of this music. The work shudders in emotional anticipation and harness as it celebrates Clara Wieck, Schumann’s future bride; and Schumann’s modus operandi calls upon the works of Beethoven that his intended pianist-bride would have known well. The deep despair of the opening movement and its “legendary style” accrues to itself a series of heroic and passionate gestures that borrow from Beethoven and look forward directly to Wagner’s Tristan.  Late in the development Schumann imposes a galloping figure that combines in stretto to a terrific heat that immediately melts into regret. “Take them, then, beloved, those songs I sang to you.” Beethoven’s “distant beloved” undergoes those same transformations of theme Liszt would adopt as his preferred method of musical evolution.

The mighty march of movement two nods to the Beethoven Op. 101 in A Major. It strikes me that few pianists program this work with the Schumann for instant, thematic recognition. Florestan reigns in its outer audacity and vigorous color, while the poetic Eusebius muses in its middle section.  The punishing syncopes and  convulsive landing discourage Gutierrez not a jot. In fact, Eusebius exerts a lyrical repose even in the midst of sprightly, illumined figures that Mendelssohn would envy. The constant test on the wrists and sustained digital motion plays like a competition toccata, and the coda’s contrary scalar, manic gestures contribute to composer’s pain of separation, induced by Clara’s uncompromising father, Friedrich Wieck.  The last movement fulfills Schlegel’s of “one gentle note for the secret listener,” that might well lie in A-flat. The quick allusions to Beethoven’s Sonata quasi fantasia, Op. 27, No. 2 and the slow movement from Piano Concerto No. 5 add to the eternity of the occasion. Once more, Gutierrez does not rely on slowness of tempo as a substitute for thought or seriousness of purpose. Gutierrez builds a grand arch that serves no less as a maerchen, or “legendary” tone-picture. The movement assumes the same course of ideal love as Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s esteemed Sonnet to the Portuguese (No. 43).  This performance, too, has the depth, breadth and height this astonishing music requires.

—Gary Lemco