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Chasing Perfection Horacio Gutierrez combines superlative musicianship and technique. Maintaining the mix takes tremendous work.

February 02, 1997|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

"What about the Arrau Tempo," Gutierrez says, teasing his wife, as he imitates the sluggish tempo at which Claudio Arrau performed the piece in the integral set of the etudes he recorded in his late 70s. But when Gutierrez brings the tempo back up, it's clear that he's heeded Asher's warning. The increased clarity and control that comes with a slightly slower tempo creates the illusion of greater speed.

Patricia Asher is herself a terrific pianist. Her old friend, tenor John Aler, remembers her as one of the most gifted and intelligent young pianists in the Washington-Baltimore area during their student years together at Catholic University. And while she rarely performs in public, she is the musician whose judgment Gutierrez most respects and trusts. She is at once his toughest critic and his biggest cheerleader.

They met as students at the Juilliard School. She was in one of Juilliard's much sought-after practice rooms when there was a knock on the door by a boy who was to leave for Moscow's Tchaikovsky Competition and asked if he could use the piano for "just a minute or two" to practice "only six bars of music."

"I had been practicing the [Beethoven] 'Waldstein' Sonata and was having some trouble with the glissando octaves in the final movement," Asher says. "He said, 'Why don't you try this?' and he showed me how he did them. I thought, 'This is so wonderful -- this is the man for me!' "

Gutierrez smiles and shrugs his shoulders.

"Some people show off their muscles," he says. "I show off glissandos."

Gutierrez came back from Moscow a few weeks later with second prize in the Tchaikovsky and enough engagements for the start of a major career. Two years later, he and Asher married. That they have no children, that they travel together and that they share similar tastes for films, books and plays seems to bring them closer each year. Some of their friends say they don't know of another couple in their 25th year of marriage who so enjoy each other's company and conversation.

They certainly complement each other. Over the years, Gutierrez's passionate impulsiveness seems to have been tempered by Asher's thoughtful judiciousness.

There were times, when he was younger, Gutierrez admits, that his anger at himself "went over the top."

"Like the time he threw tapes of himself out the window," Asher says.

Those tapes included a Chopin F Minor Ballade that some Chopin fanciers swear is the best performance of that masterpiece ever recorded.

"I think that one made it across the street into the park," Gutierrez says.

A glance out the window from their seventh-floor apartment confirms that Central Park West is indeed a broad street -- but perhaps not too far a throw for a pianist strong enough to play the cadenza of Prokofiev's Concerto No. 2 as powerfully as Gutierrez does.

Plays what he loves

While he may not be as hard on himself as he was when younger, his opinions continue to be strong.

Like most important pianists, he largely eschews contemporary music; unlike others, he's not afraid to defend his decision.

"I don't want to play something unless I love it and 'love' is a very strong word," he says. "When an instrument has a repertory of great works as large as the piano's, learning a new piece had better be something that is going to give you enormous satisfaction."

Gutierrez likes some new music -- the etudes of Gyorgy Ligeti, the piano music of George Perle and the piano concerto of Witold Lutoslawski -- most of which he has plans to perform.

But they will have to wait -- at least for now -- for Liszt's "Feux Follets," which, over the course of the evening and early morning, Gutierrez has been performing with increasing security and relaxation. In fact, the interspersions between "Feux Follets" have grown beyond Chopin etudes and preludes of short duration to include excursions into longer works such as Beethoven's Fourth Concerto and Chopin's B Minor Scherzo.

Finally, at about 4 a.m., Gutierrez starts the Liszt etude again. He is now getting through the tricky rhythms more easily than any pianist should expect at so advanced an hour.

And just as he is about to repeat the piece, Asher interrupts him.

"But it's still not perfect," the pianist protests.

"Horacio," Asher says firmly. "It's perfect enough."

Pub Date: 2/02/97

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