Review: Italian tenor sings great while hamming it up |

Review: Italian tenor sings great while hamming it up

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times

Vocal recitals are not exactly a staple at the Aspen Music Festival, but it was a fine idea to line up the vivid and irrepressible Italian tenor Vittorio Grigòlo when he was available to sing a recital in the Benedict Music Tent on Thursday evening.

Grigòlo displayed a gorgeous lyric tenor voice, magnificent control of dynamics, from loud to soft to loud again, in total control. Even at Apen’s 7,900-foot elevation, his breath control was impressive. Energetic and charming, he sometimes laid it on a bit thick, roaming the stage, cutting up, occasionally breaking into dance or a Charlie Chaplin open-toed waddle. And how many classical singers lead their own cheers? And for the pianist, Vincenzo Scalera, while we’re at it?

The program traced Italian songs from the 1820s (Bellini, if not his most incisive songs) to the 1930s. If too many songs and arias sounded too much like others, some gems stood out. Rossini’s rapid-fire “La danza” sparkled, and arias by Donizetti (“Angelo casto e bel” from “Il duca d’Alba”) and Verdi (“Tutto parea sorridere” from “Il corsaro”) let him inject needed drama. He did so with consummate ease.

But not every number received such intensity and attention. In a set of five Tosti songs, “Ideale” and “A vucchella” stood out for their fully formed storytelling, the former a wistful torch song that dripped with intensity, the latter a love song that contains a wicked little caveat. Leoncavallo’s “Mattinata” reached an ardent climax and d’Annibale’s “O paese d’ ’o sole’” finished the program with a burst of sunlight.

The encores lifted matters several notches, in part because they are simply better music than most of what preceded. “Una furtiva lagrima,” the sweet aria from Donizetti’s “Elisir d’Amore,” one of the great moments in opera for a lyric tenor, displayed Grigòlo’s ability to spin out a long line and control dynamics. His pianissimo singing could be heard plainly in the back rows. The second encore, Curtis’ famous “Non ti scordar di me,” put into perspective what was missing from so many of the other songs on the program, and this Italian tenor could not resist finishing with di Capula’s “O sole mio,” even repeating the finishing flourish (with a wink at The Three Tenors).

Chamber music earlier this week hit some lows, a few highs, and one absolutely gorgeous half-hour, the latter a mesmerizing traversal of Schoenberg’s heart-on-sleeve sextet, “Verklärte Nacht.”

That one capped a Tuesday program featuring two different sextets helmed by guest artists. Cellist Alisa Weilerstein captained the Schoenberg team, which included luminous work by faculty violinist Alexander Kerr and student violinist Eduardo Rios playing off each other, and rock-solid viola work by Sabina Thatcher. The ad hoc ensemble moved with gentle propulsion and made subtle shifts in tone, abetted by clear textures and impressive unanimity of purpose. The gentle opening never rushed as it gained momentum, and the sparkles of the high violins on the finish meshed perfectly.

Not so subtle was the first half. With violinist Daniel Hope at the controls, Tchaikovsky’s “Souvenir de Florence” came charging out of the gate at a fast clip. Missing, for the most part, was clarity and grace. Except for a beautifully rendered solo turn by cellist Eric Kim, quieter portions felt like something they wanted to get through to gear up another loud climax. Attacks felt mushy, robbing the stirring chords in the second movement of their majesty. Big sound? Sure. Speed? You bet. Transparency? Not so much.

With Kim and Kerr matched up with pianist Anton Nel, the highlight of Monday’s program was a stirring Schubert Piano Trio in B-flat. Kim was the rock at the center, but the interplay of the three old friends was something to behold—by turns graceful, muscular and triumphant. This program, full of variety, opened with Renata Arado (violin) and Espen Lilleslåtten (viola) charming in a Latin-tinged duo by Mexican composer Ponce. Joaquin Valdepeñas lent haunting clarinet sounds to resident composer Sydney Hodkinson’s warm and delicately wrought “Rogation gravis” (from 2006), and a flock of flutes and offstage piccolos led by flutist Nadine Asin (and conducted by Stephen Mulligan) took wing in a dazzling showpiece, “Flash!” by Shin-Ichiro Ikebe.

Violinist Joseph Swensen and pianist Jeffrey Kahane made an odd pairing Wednesday. The violinist positioned himself at the edge of the stage, about as far from the pianist as he could, and although they played in tune with each other and matched tempos, they took divergent interpretive paths. While Kahane applied warmth and seemed to be reaching out to the audience musically, despite careful phrasing, Swensen seemed to be playing for himself.

This was especially so in Brahms’ Violin Sonata No. 1, which unfolded with fine attention to detail and little excitement or surprise. Prokofiev’s Violin Sonata in F resonated only in the quieter moments; the angry interchanges between violin and piano seemed like long volleys over a tennis net. Kahane created a serene setting for the violin version of Arvo Pärt’s magical Fratres, but the violin’s glosses missed the piece’s spiritual essence.

Not to miss in the coming days

The Jupiter String Quartet plays a new piece by Hodkinson on a program that includes Brahms’ quartet No. 1 in C minor tonight in Harris Hall. Weilserstein takes the the stage in the music playing the Prokofiev Symphony-Concerto on Sunday on a Festival Orchestra program conducted by Ludovic Morlot. And pianist Vijay Ayer, much talked about in the jazz world, brings his trio to Harris Hall Monday evening for a special event.

Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival for 21 years. His reviews appear twice a week in The Aspen Times.