Aspen Music Festival review: Stars Align for two great recitals
Special to The Aspen Times
Aspen Music Festival audiences got a big dose of virtuosity in recitals this week in Harris Hall. Pianist Nikolai Lugansky applied his impeccable taste and seemingly endless reserves of power to a program that included great pieces by Prokofiev and Rachmaninoff. Soprano Susanna Phillips and bass-baritone Eric Owens put their luscious operatic voices to work on some less familiar art songs.
Lugansky, who triumphed with Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 on Sunday, started gently and gained momentum over a 90-minute program Tuesday evening. With simplicity and directness, Lugansky homed in on the essence of each piece. Again and again he revved up the intensity and, just when you thought he had peaked, found extra oomph to take things up another notch. He never banged, he just got richer and richer sound from the Steinway grand.
He mined contrasts and found beautiful colors in the opening work, Franck’s Prélude, fugue et variation (written for organ and transcribed for two pianos by the composer and arranged artfully for one piano by Harold Bauer). The first measures, a series of richly voiced chords, were followed by a silk-scarf flutter of soft runs. The stately fugue always maintained its aloofness, showing restraint through its variations.
Where many pianists look for ways to elaborate on Chopin’s “Nocturne” in D flat, Lugansky simply aimed at the music’s heart. Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 4 in C minor, not a showy piece, fit snugly with this forthright approach. Teasing us with the restraint of the lyrical opening movement and the slow movement, he pulled back just as they threatened to expand into a showy climax, instead relishing subtle shifts of color and rhythm. The finale, with its exuberant rhythms and zippy tunes, was like opening a door to unexpected sunlight.
Rachmaninoff published 24 piano preludes, each in a different key, just as Bach and other composers had done before him, but composed in groups of one, 10 and 13 over the course of a decade. Thirteen Preludes, Op. 32, written in a kaleidoscope of virtuosic styles, was catnip for Lugansky. The more difficult the music, the more he wrapped his arms (or more accurately, his fingers) around it and presented it with panache and no excessiveness.
The more introspective ones, such as the sweet and simple No. 5 in G minor, the plaintive No. 9 in A major and the wistful No. 11 in B major, seemed to flow from some other place through the piano into fresh existence. There was no strain in the more expansive ones, not even the extravagantly chordal No. 4 in E minor, the finger-busting dexterity of the fleet No. 8 in A minor and the magnificent edifice of the final No. 13 in D-flat major. No. 10 in B minor was especially compelling, starting off gently and seamlessly, ever-so-gradually expanded into a huge climax, never breaking stride or tipping over into clangor and receding into a wistful finish rich in color.
The encore, Grieg’s Arietta, Op. 12 No. 1, a piece often played by youthful beginners, brought what just might have been the season’s greatest recital to a intimate and charming close.
In their shared recital, a traversal of less-traveled ground in songs by composers more famous for other vocal works, Phillips and Owens found a sensitive and eloquent piano collaborator in festival Music Director Robert Spano. For her part, Phillips brought gorgeous sound, thorough understanding of the text and an opera singer’s theatricality to sets by Barber and Spano. Owens complemented a sonorous bass range with a thrilling top.
Phillips invested Spano’s “Hölderlin Songs” with sheer beauty of tone that could melt any heart. The texts deal with approaching death with no regrets, in some ways echoing Richard Strauss’ “Four Last Songs,” but with a more direct musical line. Sketched in 1990 and finished only last year, they echo Strauss in the way they celebrate the soaring possibilities of the soprano voice.
Her delivery and sound, both full of personality, did full justice to the texts of Barber’s “Hermit Songs” (sung in their 1953 debut by Leontyne Price), English translations of poetic and vernacular marginal jottings by Irish monks of a millennium ago. They somehow feel modern, and Barber’s music plays off of their humor and earthy observation. The melodic line keeps mostly conversational, but occasionally reaches for heavenly imagery.
In the confines of Harris Hall, Owens’ cavernous voice, which can fill the 4,000-seat Metropolitan Opera, could seem unwieldy when it boomed through dramatic songs such as Duparc’s “L’invitation Au Voyage,” but mesmerizing when he reined it in. A voice that had blown us against the back wall minutes earlier turned to restrained beauty with intensity of expression to make the gorgeously sustained and quiet lines of Purcell’s “Music for While” pure magic.
Known for his Wagner roles, Owens’ one Wagner selection, “Les Deux Grenadiers,” an existential tale of two prisoners of war returning to a Napoleon-less France, thrilling as it was, wasn’t as captivating as his deft and often touchingly funny “Don Quichotte à Dulcinée,” Ravel’s set of three songs about Cervantes’ knight of the woeful countenance.
A slyly staged “La Ci Darem La Mano,” Mozart’s timeless duet of Don Giovanni’s seduction of the not-quite-reluctant-enough Zerlina, functioned as a delightful programmed encore.
The final concert of the season Sunday brings back Owens to sing the glorious coronation scene from Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov” in the first half and intone the recitative that launches the vocal and choral finale of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. Phillips will be there too, along with a cast of hundreds, Spano conducting the Festival Orchestra and Colorado Symphony Orchestra Chorus.
Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival for 20 years. His reviews appear Tuesdays and Saturdays in The Aspen Times.