Aspen Music Festival review: What’s the hurry in classical concerts today?

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times

The live classical music I’ve been hearing recently seems to be speeding by faster than usual, and it isn’t just my imagination. Several musician friends agree they have also noticed a trend for tempos to fly by quicker than they are accustomed to hearing.

Sprinting music can be exciting. Among soloists who have chosen to play at breakneck speed this summer in Aspen, Gil Shaham launched Bach’s Partita No. 3 so fast it could have been a blur, but his articulation was so great that  not a nuance was missed. At another concert, Inon Barnatan lit out fast on Rachmaninoff’s Paganini Variations at the opening gun, and made it a rousing performance.

Others were not so successful. Ravel’s music was a victim on two recent concerts. French conductor Lionel Briguier never let La Valse breathe, so it just sounded angry. Violinist Vadim Gluzman pushed Tzigane so fast all subtlety was lost and the music blurred.

Speed, and some overzealous conducting, undermined Sunday’s Festival Orchestra program. In the marquee piece, Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor (a gold-plated crowd-pleaser), conductor Vasiliy Petrenko, usually a master at shaping big works, also encouraged the orchestra to play so loud that much of soloist Alexander Malofeev was lost.

Violins were bowing away like the soloist wasn’t even there. The wind sections upped the ante with extra “f” or two on whatever dynamic markings were in the score. All the while, Malofeev, who at 22 has established himself in the vanguard of his generation, focused on trying his best to play this music in a less bombastic style than we usually hear. It was like Petrenko expected the piano to accompany the orchestra. At least he made no apparent effort to find a better balance.

The result was exciting because of its energy, but it was noise. Not really what the composer intended.

For an encore, with no other instruments to compete against, Malofeev delivered an extraordinary performance of the pas de deux from Mikhail Pletnev’s fiendishly difficult solo piano arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” Suite. At one point I could have sworn he had grown an extra hand and arm to play the downward scale motif — in octaves — amid flourishes that raced up, down and around the piano. He made it all cohere into a stunning representation of Tchaikovsky’s orchestration.

The second half began with Wagner’s Prelude and Liebestod, the first and last pages of his opera Tristan und Isolde. Here the pace felt so fast that little of the achingly hesitant, yearning music could breathe. The sound was rich, but the tempo was so fast and so steady that there was no flexibility to convey what it was really about.

This obsession with speed is not a phenomenon limited to Aspen. Last week I heard the whole score at Santa Fe Opera. Conductor James Gaffigan also moved it along a bit faster than we usually hear. But Gaffigan allowed for just enough rubato for an audience to feel a lover’s longing, which is what Wagner intended.

The final piece on Sunday’s program, The Poem of Ecstasy by Skryabin, rose to a series of crashing climaxes. Maybe it was noisier than we usually hear, but at least it made its point. We could feel the ground move under our ears.


Lyric tenor Nicholas Phan assembled a fascinating and far-reaching program for his recital Tuesday night, with songs ranging from Schubert to Missy Mazzoli. On Wednesday, Joaquin Valdepeñas, principal clarinetist of the Sunday orchestra, conducts a concert of music Mozart, Stravinsky and Dvořák wrote for winds (a concert postponed from July). Friday’s Chamber Symphony program finds baritone Will Liverman, who starred in the Metropolitan Opera’s “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” singing Mahler’s gorgeous Songs of a Wayfarer. Miguel Harth-Bedoya conducts.

Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival for 29 years. His reviews appear Tuesdays and Saturdays in The Aspen Times.