A good week for Shostakovich | AspenTimes.com

A good week for Shostakovich

Harvey Steiman

Last week was a good one for Shostakovich at the Aspen Music Festival, mostly because of the Emerson Quartet and members thereof. The chamber music side of the festival was more compelling than the big orchestras.

The Emerson Quartet delivered wrenching accounts of four of the Russian composer’s quartets. David Finckel, Wu Han and Alexander Kerr gave a blazing performance of the Piano Trio No. 2, and violinist Lev Polyakin stole the show at the Saturday afternoon artist faculty chamber music program, teaming with pianist Jean-David Coen for four witty, jewel-like miniatures, preludes 10, 15, 16 and 24.

Saturday night’s special event in Harris Hall found Finckel, the Emerson Quartet’s cellist, and his pianist wife, Wu Han, mining the wit and color in the Shostakovich Cello Sonata in D major and the dramatic turns and endless invention of the Britten Cello Sonata in C Major. But the reason to shell out the extra bucks for this special event was the Piano Trio No. 2 in E Minor. Violinist Kerr joined them for the trio.

Finckel’s technical prowess made the opening harmonics sound perfectly and bought out the colors of Shostakovich’s writing for the cello. Kerr can stay right with him, and Wu Han’s rhythmic sense made the piece move inexorably. Despite her slight size, she makes the massive chords that start the Passacaglia peal like church bells and the double octaves of the sardonic Jewish dance cavort in the finale. She can also nudge the merest hint of sound into the chords that thump quietly behind the opening tune of the finale, yet keep the rhythm completely taut.

The insanely fast pace of the second movement Scherzo made it sound brilliant when I think Shostakovich meant it to be savage. It also threatened to come unglued occasionally, and the cello and violin didn’t have enough space to allow the rapid crescendos in one sequence.

The rest was mesmerizing. The entire third movement, the Passacaglia, was a long opening shout, followed by an extended sigh. The finale ended in a heartbreaking hush.

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Shostakovich’s final quartet, the 15th, which he wrote in 1974 as he grew sicker from cancer, heart disease and other ailments, faces death in a totally personal way. Where Strauss seeks nobility in his “Four Last Songs” and Verdi scares the bejeebers out of his audience with the “Dies irae” in his Requiem, Shostakovich explores the quiet, dark corners of the human soul.

Tuesday in Harris Hall, the Emerson Quartet found an astonishing range of colors in the six movements, many of them dark and creepy. They created a frigid musical environment that still glowed with an eerie beauty. The series of individual, overlapping crescendos that opens the second movement, the lapidary violin solo by Philip Setzer in the third, the gentle interweaving of their lines in the fourth, all seemed to come from a place that had nothing to do with the individual instruments. The jagged rhythms and instrumental effects of the fifth movement funeral march tore at the fabric of the music, creating an overwhelming sense of resignation and, finally, transcendence in the finale.

After the concert, a friend asked, “Did you enjoy that?” For a moment, I had no answer. “‘Enjoy’ isn’t the word,” I said, finally. “But I treasure the experience.”

The Emerson’s second concert of the week, Thursday in the Tent, included Beethoven and Mendelssohn, but the moment they launched into the Shostakovich String Quartet No. 9, we were in a different league. The harmonic colors, the rhythmic drive, the Russian shape of the melodies all play to the Emerson’s strengths. They understand the overall arch of the music, and drive it home with the confidence and deftness that only total familiarity can achieve.

In the orchestral concerts in the Tent, despite the present of Leon Fleischer on Sunday’s Aspen Festival Orchestra agenda, I liked Friday night’s lightweight Aspen Chamber Orchestra program more. Nicolas McGegan got the Chamber Orchestra to achieve an irresistible buoyancy in Mozart and Vivaldi.

The centerpiece, which came after intermission, was Vivaldi’s Violin Concerto in G Minor, in which the soloist, Sarah Chang, put her pinpoint accuracy and elegant phrasing to perfect use. Before intermission, Mozart’s short Symphony No. 32 in G Major charmed winsomely under McGegan. Aspen faculty took center stage in Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat Major, a sort of quadruple concerto that found oboist Richard Woodhams, clarinetist Ted Oien, bassoonist Per Hannevold and hornist John Zirbel in sprightly form.

Plymouth Town, a recently discovered early ballet score from Benjamin Britten, fit the lightweight nature of the evening. It’s a silly piece, but it contains an abundance of musical ideas and some of the musical gestures we know from Britten’s more mature works: the pedal tone that seems one step off, certain harmonic turns.

Sunday introduced French conductor Emmanuel Villaume, music director of the Spoleto USA festival, to Aspen. He conducts a lot of opera. Maybe that’s why he employs such broad gestures, even in quiet music. The opening piece, Ravel’s Valses Nobles et Sentimentales, started off heavy-footed and only found some grace in the quieter moments. Ravel’s Daphis et Chloe Suite No. 2 achieved little delicacy, but the final rush in the finale revved up into an exciting finish.

In between, Chang wowed the crowd with a distinctly extroverted account of the Bruch Violin Concerto, and Fleisher did the best he could with Hindemith’s Piano Music for the Left Hand with Orchestra. Unlike the grind-away outer movements, the slow middle section of the Hindemith allowed for some sensitivity, with a conversation between the piano and the English horn against a walking bass.

The orchestra concerts look most promising this week, with Jahja Ling conducting the Chamber Orchestra Friday in music by Pärt, Mozart and Beethoven and Hans Graf leading the Festival Orchestra Sunday in Stravinsky’s ballet “The Firebird,” and the Schumann Cello Concerto, featuring Lynn Harrell.

Chang and Kerr are back Wednesday in Harris Hall, together for Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.”

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