To hear Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4 “The Italian” in a live performance is an opportunity not to be missed, and our expectations were amply rewarded last night at Sunset Center as Max Bragado-Darman conducted the Monterey Symphony in the fifth program of its 2017–2018 season. This sunny, vibrant symphony represents Mendelssohn at his best, and the Monterey Symphony was at the top of its form with lots of fine playing from every section of the orchestra.
The biggest buzz of the evening was our introduction to an exciting young pianist, Juan Pérez Floristán, making his United States Debut as soloist in the Brahms Second Piano Concerto. I am describing him as “young,” since, from the audience, he looks like a teenager not old enough to date your daughter. This impression was dispelled by the end of the concerto by which time he had demonstrated lovely poetic and expressive playing as well as solid “blood and guts” virtuosity. His impressive technical mastery permitted him to toss off the most difficult passages (and there are many) and make them look easy in the process. But beyond the virtuosity it was his poetic playing that won our hearts.
The first movement of the concerto was oddly disappointing, for in its opening pages Floristán seemed not to have found his groove in playing that seemed hesitant and disjointed. Although the first movement seemed a tad long with its duration of 19:30 compared to Rubinstein (16:42), Richter (17:27), Serkin (17:05), Gutierrez (17:31), Floristán ultimately brought the work to a very satisfying conclusion.
There were two soloists in the Monterey Symphony who deserved special mention in the Brahms Concerto last night — principal horn Daniel Nebel in the opening page of the first movement, and principal cello Adelle Kearns whose lovely warm playing in the Andante third movement was outstanding.
There was one encore to reward the audience for its tumultuous applause and standing ovation — it was the Rachmaninoff Prelude in B-flat Major, Op. 23, No. 2, a work that has some startlingly magical moments. Amidst the fire and thunder of swirling octaves and cascades of 16th-note passages, a lovely cantabile melody mysteriously rises up in the tenor from the turgid textures surrounding it, grabbing our hearts in the process. This prelude is tremendously difficult, but Floristán made it look easy and sound magical.