Review: Violinist Kristóf Baráti dazzles in Aspen Music Fest debut
Kristóf Baráti, the Hungarian-born violinist well-known in Europe but not in the U.S., introduced himself to Aspen Music Festival audiences Tuesday evening in Harris Hall with a recital that ranged from the intricate counterpoint of J.S. Bach to the Gypsy-inflected show-off music of Ravel’s “Tzigane.”
A violinist who commands attention for the music without calling too much attention to himself, Baráti executed it all with remarkable tone, articulation and detailed expression.
Opening with Bach’s Sonata No. 1 for Unaccompanied Violin in G minor, he made the counterpoint flow as if two violins were playing. Octave double-stops in the Adagio came to life as the top note crescendoed while the bottom note faded away gently. Phrases pulsed within the Allegro’s fugue with a spicy flavor, and the final Presto dazzled with its brilliance.
Totally different, Ysaÿe’s Sonata for Unaccompanied Violin in D minor “Ballade,” by the Belgian virtuoso who was the preeminent violinist of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, teems with technical challenges. Baráti let it unfold like a well-told story, starting slow and ending with the appropriate direction “with bravura.”
With Anton Nel, who seems to be everyone’s favorite piano collaborator at the moment, Baráti went for sinuous execution in Brahms’ Violin Sonata No. 2 in A major, and found a sense of elation and spirited expression in Tchaikovsky’s “Souvenir of a Beloved Place.”
As if the musical bond here was not already palpable, the unanimity of wit and purpose in Ravel’s “Tzigane” was unmistakable, almost euphoric in its “anything you can play I can outdo” spirit. The encore, the opening movement of Beethoven’s “Spring” sonata, reflected a musical pairing that made the music play out as it should.
A two-evening journey through J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos on Wednesday and Thursday in Harris Hall had its high points, but it started off shakily and a misguided change of instrumentation waylaid another of the concertos.
No. 1, with a solo violin and an oboe-and-horn quintet out front, never quite achieved lift or sprightliness, not even in the dancelike finale. Elaine Douvas contributed a lissome solo in the Adagio, and John Zirbel enunciated high-lying French horn phrases with his usual aplomb. But they could not overcome stodgy tempos and mostly lifeless phrasing from the ensemble.
Jory Vinokour, conducting from the harpsichord, had replaced the usually vigorous Nicholas McGegan, originally slated to run this show, but who stepped aside to undergo a long-needed hip replacement. Vinokour, a brilliant harpsichordist, made a delicious moment of the instrument’s extended cadenza in No. 5, but some of the conducting choices left this listener puzzled.
The biggest question mark was why Tamás Pálfavi was allowed to play the trumpet part in No. 2 on a flugelhorn fitted with a trumpet mouthpiece. He played it flawlessly, of course. But Bach’s orchestrations for these concertos are landmarks of instrumental balance and color, and he called for a tiny piccolo trumpet, which has the brilliance and the range to match the other soloists in from the ensemble — violin (Chad Hoopes), oboe (Douvas) and flute (Nadine Asin). The mellow, café-au-lait sound of the flugelhorn stuck out egregiously, and deprived us of the piccolo trumpet’s brilliant high notes — catnip for a virtuoso in Pálfavi’s class.
I missed the toy trumpet, but even more I missed McGegan’s witty commentary, a staple of his Baroque presentations here. Vinokour focused on his harpsichord and conducting.
The best performances involved the ones with nothing but strings and harpsichord. No. 3 achieved a lightness of tone and freshness of pace that was missing in No. 1 (which preceded it). And No. 6 showed a spotlight on violists Matthew Lipman and Timothy Ridout, who supplied the flair and energy to bring the cello, bass and harpsichord along for the lively ride.
With No. 4, Nadine Asin and Calvin Mayman floated graceful flute lines over the gently pulsing ensemble and Paul Huang supplied eye-opening violin filigrees. And in No. 5, Asin and violinist Angelo Xiang Yu created a soft-hued, amiable mood to set the tone Thursday.
Both programs finished with unrelated multiple-violin concertos. On Wednesday, Fabiola Kim and Blake Pouliot competed for attention as soloists in Bach’s Concerto for Three Violins in D major. Thursday introduced a little Vivaldi, with Pouliot, Huang, Yu and Hoopes vying for supremacy in the Concerto for Four Violins in B minor, which turned into a rhythmic romp reminiscent of a mini-“Four Seasons.”
Monday’s chamber music included a world premiere and a spiky sonata for viola and piano, getting only its fourth performance.
The freshest work, Three Chorale Preludes for Eight Trombones, by festival CEO Alan Fletcher, was played actually by 12 trombones, all students conducted by veteran festival trombonist Per Breving. The piece’s instrumentation employs bass trombones, tenor trombones and alto trombones to create rich textures, and emphasizes legato over punchy phrases. The result was an engaging piece that sustained its message over 20 minutes.
The first prelude set a pattern, presenting a hymn tune with richly textured polyphonic writing, then stepping up the level of dissonance in variations or development before returning to a pleasing consonance. The first uses a tune associated with “Slane,” an old Irish hymn, and the finale expands upon a hymn written for the U.S. centennial in 1876. The most moving part of the work, the second chorale, is based on “Love Unknown,” a hymn by the 20th-century composer John Ireland that’s used in the Anglican church just before Easter. Fletcher’s rich writing tugged at the heart.
If the preludes called our better angels, Caplet’s “Conte Fantastique” went for sheer fright. Written in 1908 for harp and string quartet by a friend of (and occasional orchestrator for) Debussy, it sketches the Edgar Allan Poe story “The Masque of the Red Death” with chilling potency. As played by the Pacifica Quartet and harpist Sivan Magen (principal harpist of the Finnish Radio Symphony), the music took no prisoners and outlined the grisly death of self-satisfied aristocrats with striking vigor.
John Harbison’s Sonata for Viola and Piano got a dedicated reading from James Dunham and Nel. The pair beavered away at the often-grating dissonances. It looked like they were having much more fun playing it than we were hearing it.
NOT TO MISS IN THE COMING DAY
After all those violins, tonight’s recital in Harris Hall presents pianist George Li in a program of Beethoven and Schumann. Esther Shoo, an Aspen alum and the youngest prize winner of the Sibelius Violin Competition, takes on the Tchaikovsky violin concerto on Sunday afternoon’s Aspen Festival Orchestra program in the tent. And Monday is the last chance to catch the Opera Center’s production of “A Little Night Music” at the Wheeler Opera House.
Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival for 24 years.