Aspen Music Festival’s spectacular strings

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times

This has been a good week for strings at the Aspen Music Festival. The pinnacle was reached Thursday evening in Harris Hall with Augustin Hadelich’s breathtaking recital of works for unaccompanied violin. Wielding a 1723 Stradivarius, Hadelich deployed jaw-dropping technique, lustrous tone and his trademark sensitivity on works spanning four centuries. He began with two Telemann fantasies (18th century) and two Paganini caprices (19th century), the more impressive being the ones from each composer in E-flat major, finger-busting exercises in trilling on double stops (sounding two notes as the same time) that he made into compelling music.

Representing our current century, Hadelich played five wispy excerpts from David Lang’s “mystery sonatas,” stretches of delicate minimalism emphasizing simplicity and restraint. The highlights, though, were pieces by the two great masters of writing for unaccompanied violin — J.S. Bach, who pretty much invented the genre, and Eugene Ysaye, the Belgian virtuoso who showed how it could translate into the 20th century.

The Prelude of Bach’s Partita No. 3 rocketed out of the gate with brilliant passagework and rich sound that made the Strad feel like a whole orchestra. Through the entire work he made the violin’s sound dance on a cushion of pulsing air. Especially fine were the Loure, with its gently thrumming quarter notes supporting a simultaneous spinning legato of a graceful tune, and the Gigue finale, with rapid-fire florid energy and refined articulation. Ysaye’s Sonata for Unaccompanied Violin No. 4, dedicated to Fritz Kreisler, makes passing references to Bach’s gestures but stands on a 20th-century platform of unexpected melodic and harmonic twists and violin effects that developed over the centuries. Hadelich relished the piece’s whistling harmonics and a richness of counterpoint and chordal completeness that exceeds even Bach’s. It made for a thrilling finale.

To cool things down, Hadelich’s encore offered a gently swaying Andante from the Unaccompanied Sonata No. 2. The other two winning concerts coincidentally involved strings, personnel substitutions and clarinets. Joaquin Valdepenas, recently appointed resident conductor of the Royal Conservatory Orchestra at the Glenn Gould School in Toronto, wove his fluid clarinet tone, expressive range and refined articulation with the Takacs Quartet’s already unified sound in Brahms’ dark-hued Clarinet Quintet in B minor. It made a strong finish for the quartet’s annual recital here Wednesday.

Valdepenas’ florid gypsy cadenzas in the adagio seemed to expand with each iteration, and the interplay of his high register with the violins and the low register with the viola and cello fit smoothly. The result was a 35-minute experience with rich harmonies accented with splendid articulation of Brahms’ trademark polyphony.

Even as its roster has evolved from its origins as a group of Hungarian musicians, the Takacs has always displayed an affinity for Eastern composers. That took one step further as Charles Wetherbee stepped in for regular second violinist Karoly Schranz for this program. A recent appointee to the music staff at the University of Colorado Boulder, where the Takacs makes its home, Wetherbee is a regular member of the Carpe Diem String Quartet.

It wasn’t his fault that the opening Beethoven String Quartet Op 18 No. 3 took a while to gets its feet under it, but it all came together seamlessly for a searing account of the Shostakovich String Quartet No. 3. The music’s sharp turns from insouciance to a sense of impending catastrophe came through vividly, a unanimity of approach making this a performance of tremendous focus.

When Daniel Hope canceled his chamber-music evening, the festival turned to its artist faculty. Robert Chen, concert master of the Chicago Symphony, in town sitting first chair in the Festival Orchestra, stepped in to lead a crisp, biting performance of Stravinsky’s Histoire du Soldat, highlights of the score for piano, violin and clarinet, and a mesmerizing rendering of Richard Strauss’ Metamorphosen for string septet. All due respect to Hope, this was terrific music making. Chen articulated the edgy line of the violin that represents the soldier’s soul in the devil’s hands. Michael Rusinek (principal clarinetist of the Pittsburgh Symphony) brought jaunty style and precision to the part that the composer wrote for his patron Werner Reinhart of Winterthur, himself a clarinetist. And Tengku Irfan fulfilled the rest of the parts with elan on the piano. The jagged music created its own sonic world.

Metamorphosen debuted as a piece for string orchestra, but in 1990 scholars discovered a septet version that Strauss had apparently written first. A group of faculty and students spun out the long legato lines with warmth and flair. Aside from Chen’s liquid expressiveness, cellist Darrett Adkins (on faculty and Juilliard and Oberlin) and his student sidekick, Gabriel Martins, made the strongest impressions. Edgar Meyer represented luxury casting on bass.

Coming up

Hadelich returns Sunday in the tent to play the Dvoak violin concerto with the Festival Orchestra, Ludovic Morlet conducting, on a program that concludes with Ravel’s genre-busting “La Valse.” But first, a gang of Aspen music faculty favorites joins Anton Nel for a chamber music this evening in Harris Hall, finishing with Brahms’ muscular Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor, which always gets an audience to its feet.

Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival for 22 years. His reviews appear in The Aspen Times on Tuesdays and Saturdays.