Aspen Music Festival review: Barnatan and inspirations from the Baroque
August 5, 2017
Those who may have experienced difficulty hearing Inon Barnatan against the orchestra in Sunday's concert in the tent should have been there Monday and Wednesday in Harris Hall. Barnatan anchored a splendid performance of Beethoven's "Archduke" Trio on Monday and returned Wednesday for a unique and rewarding recital.
Monday's chamber music concert, which has to rank among the best of them, started with Chopin's Cello Sonata in G minor. It was nice to see Ann Schein on the Harris Hall stage after a year's absence, playing Chopin with her husband Earl Carlyss (a former member of the Julliard Quartet) turning pages for her. Darrett Adkins was the cellist weaving around and through the composer's pianistic flourishes, making for a satisfying opener.
Cellist Brinton Smith and violinist Adele Anthony followed that with a piece that righted forgotten history, giving the world premiere of Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco's Sonata for Violin and Cello nearly 50 years after the composer's death. Having fled fascist Italy in the 1930s, he ended up writing film scores for MGM and, while in Hollywood, befriended Jascha Heifitz and cellist Gregor Piatagorsky. Smith speculates that this duo was written for them, but never played.
The deftly crafted sonata creates a range of unique sounds, including long arcs of lyrical melody and classically framed form. A sequence of pizzicato chords sound much richer than two string instruments should be able to produce.
Barnatan, Adkins and violinist David Coucheron, concertmaster of the Atlanta Symphony, topped that with the "Archduke." Barnatan set the music in motion with fleet playing and superb balance of sound and style with the other instruments, not to mention crazy-fast tempos in the finale. It was thrilling stuff.
The pianist's own recital Wednesday reprised an idea he debuted last year at Lincoln Center's Mostly Mozart Festival: compiling single movements by disparate composers from Bach to Adès, the individual excerpts inspired by Baroque counterpoint and dance, the building blocks of a Baroque suite.
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The meat of the suite, if you will, lay in the more "modern" takes, especially Ravel's energetic and colorful Rigaudon from "Le tombeau de Couperin" (which followed the short "L'Atlante" by the actual Couperin) and Ligeti's fascinating and virtuosic "Omaggio a Girolamo Frescobaldi" from his "Musica ricercata." The fugue-on-steroids finale of Barber's Piano Sonata brought the suite to a thunderous conclusion.
Barnatan seemed much more comfortable in this unchained music than in the more rigorous Baroque works at the start. He differentiated Bach from Handel nicely, and Thomas Adès "Variations for Bianca" contrasted just as well with the Ravel and Ligeti pieces that surrounded it.
Infused with Barnatan's energy, Brahms' towering Variations and Fugue on a Theme by G. F. Handel in B-flat major finished the program in an expansive Romantic mode, suggesting how Baroque ideas stimulated later composers.
Baroque music inspired Philip Glass' second violin concerto, "The American Four Seasons," a direct reflection of Vivaldi's familiar classic. In his recital Thursday in Harris Hall, violinist Robert McDuffie used the unaccompanied prologue and "songs" with which Glass separated movements as a centerpiece of a first-half sequence, which he introduced with a similarly unaccompanied deconstruction of "America the Beautiful."
Pianist Elizabeth Pridgeon then entered with the vigorously rhythmic introduction to the finale of Glass' first violin concerto, setting up a virtuoso violin filigree from McDuffie. It was a dramatic way to start a concert. McDuffie, a longtime festival favorite, delivered rhythmic and dynamic prowess, marred by some wince-inducing intonation issues.
McDuffie concluded the first half with music of another figure long associated with this festival, George Tsontakis, whose 1998 work "Dust" for violin, piano and horn, channels Messiaen in his "Quartet for the End of Time" mode. Notable for the work of hornist Kevin Rivard (who fills principal roles in the San Francisco Opera and Ballet orchestras), the craggy piece seemed out of place in this otherwise resolutely consonant concert.
The second half consisted of Brahms' String Sextet No. 1 in B-flat major, with McDuffie occupying the second violin chair surrounded by gifted students. First violin Aubree Oliverson and cellist Richard Narroway led a spirited performance, vivid in dynamics and the occasional moment of detail, despite recurring intonation issues involving the second violin.
NOT TO MISS IN THE COMING DAYS
"Seven Angels" is a climate change parable inspired by Milton's "Paradise Lost." This one-act opera gets its Aspen debut today at 4:30 p.m. in Harris Hall. Luke Bedford's chorale-influenced music carries the story. Tonight Sharon Isbin applies her guitar to music of Howard Shore, Chris Brubeck and Joaquin Rodrigo, and tomorrow violinist Augustin Hadelich and conductor Joshua Weilerstein front the Aspen Festival Orchestra in Brahms' Violin Concerto. Monday evening's highlight is the always highly anticipated Percussion Ensemble concert in Harris Hall.
Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival for 22 years. His reviews appear in The Aspen Times Tuesdays and Saturdays.