In cards, a pair of threes seldom wins. But when the threes are Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto and Tchaikovsky's Third Symphony, and they are played by the Pittsburgh Symphony, the combination is hard to beat. Sunday afternoon at George Mason University's new concert hall, conductor Lorin Maazel was part alchemist, elevating a so-so work such as the Tchaikovsky Third, and part altruist, giving his orchestra and soloist Horacio Gutierrez plenty of room to shine in their persuasive account of Rachmaninoff's Third, arguably the best of his concertos, and a work they have just recorded for Telarc.
Cramped stage conditions posed logistical problems in the opening Rachmaninoff. Gutierrez was inches from being in the audience himself, and his piano's raised lid largely obscured Maazel, whose podium had to be angled so he wouldn't be part of the violin section. Yet there was nothing to suggest that either orchestra or soloist was the least bit inhibited. Gutierrez summoned great volleys of sound at will in the outer movements, while impressing with his poetic gestures in the connecting intermezzo. He used some body English during the finale's march section, rising from his bench in time to pumping the pedal.
Maazel conducted Tchaikovsky's Third from memory and with a minimum of fuss. The middle movements, which spotlight the woodwinds in laendler and pastoral settings, contained especially poignant moments thanks to the French horn and bassoon principals. With the piano removed and Maazel now in full view, everyone could see how effortlessly he marshaled the Pittsburgh Symphony, and how responsive it was at each juncture.