The majestic Schubert and the swaggering Shostakovich | AspenTimes.com

The majestic Schubert and the swaggering Shostakovich

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times

A high level of music making informed this past weekend's events at the Aspen Music Festival, even if you don't count the monumental concert performance of Britten's "Peter Grimes" (reviewed Monday). Pianist Anton Nel's richly detailed Thursday recital and cellist David Finckel's gamely persistent performance Sunday before an all-student orchestra should not go by without proper acknowledgment. Both are long-time festival favorites, and for good reason.

Nel's overdue first solo recital here underlined the nuance and immediate communication of his piano playing in a program that touched on Debussy, Granados and Schubert. He started with Haydn's Sonata in B minor, full of pregnant silences and hushed anticipation. In Debussy's "Estampes," a suite of three musical paintings, he never shortchanged the inherent pianism underlying the composer's structural rigor, creating the requisite washes of sound in "Pagodes," the redolent Spanish atmosphere of "La Soiree Dans Grenade" and the tempestuous rains of "Jardins Sous La Pluie."

Granados' Allegro de Concierto capped off the first half with technical pizzazz, even if more clarity might have brought out the rhythmic through-line in the complex swirls of sound. Schubert's majestic yet introspective Sonata in B-flat major drew the most subtle playing. The first two movements unfolded on intimate terms, a storyteller conversing with a perfect sense of timing. He gently underlined Schubert's signature sudden shifts from major to minor and back by relaxing the tempo just a hair when the mood changed to minor. The scherzo danced on tippy-toe without losing its sprightly energy. He caught the rondo finale's quicksilver mood swings from outward vigor to inward pensiveness and then went out on a flash of lightning in the final pages. Although Nel allowed that "an encore after that piece should be illegal," he cooled off the repeated curtain calls with a deft and witty Rondo in D major by Mozart.

Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke added extra gleam to Friday's Aspen Chamber Orchestra program under conductor Tomas Netopil. In Mahler's Symphony No. 4, known as the composer's most relaxed and approachable, Cooke offered a delightfully animated take on "The Heavenly Life" song finale. It might have seemed even more rapturous had the previous 45 minutes been more restless. Netopil got serene, pleasant playing from the orchestra, but where were the dark undercurrents and splashes of schmaltzy phrasing that are meant to set up the blissful final minutes?

Pianist Lisa de la Salle delivered a respectable performance of the familiar Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major in her clear, unadorned style. Her dry-eyed approach offered little extra nuance to the gentle, slow movement. Despite crisp playing, the finale could have used more buoyancy. A trooper, she also took on the extensive piano swoops and flourishes in Britten's joyful "Young Apollo," which opened the concert.

The Aspen Philharmonic stepped into the spotlight Sunday, as the Festival Orchestra, which usually plays the big Sunday concerts, was occupied with "Grimes." With Hugh Wolff conducting, the students created a juicy sound, right from the first wisps of Mussorgsky's prelude from "Khovanshchina." The main event, Shostakovich's Symphony No. 6, couldn't have been more colorful, from the Mahler-like stew of the broad opening largo to the inventive and giggle-inducing clown music of the presto finale.

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Johanna Gruskin's fleet and precise piccolo playing carried the day at crucial moments, and the brass topped things off with a proper amount of extra blare. The swagger and fun of the Shostakovich made up for the tedium of Britten's Cello Symphony. It's thorny music, grumbling in its corner petulantly, never quite completing a dramatic arc. Britten's flair for ear-catching orchestration is seldom in evidence. Finckel worked hard to execute his thankless task, but it just didn't click. One can only hope that future assignments in front of an orchestra in Aspen will connect better with audiences.

Not to miss in the coming days

The pianist Kyrill Gerstein plays Haydn, Schumann and Berg (the latter with violinist Jennifer Koh and a wind ensemble) tonight, a fascinating program. The American String Quartet pays its annual visit Wednesday with Haydn, Janacek and Brahms on the docket. Thursday presents a tough choice: colorful pianism from Garrick Ohlsson or opening night of Puccini's "Suor Angelica" and "Gianni Schicchi" at the Wheeler.

Harvey Steiman has been writing about Aspen Music Festival concerts for 19 years. His reviews appear twice weekly in The Aspen Times.

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