Ax and Zinman do right by Mozart and Strauss |

Ax and Zinman do right by Mozart and Strauss

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN ” Emmanuel Ax’s crystalline playing of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 22 capped a weekend of strong piano performances.

After the clanging and banging fun of the four-piano evening Thursday honoring Joseph Kalichstein, and a snappy but shallow performance of Beethoven’s “Emperor” concerto Friday by Sunwoo Kim, Ax’s special event Saturday came as a breath of clear mountain air.

Ax actually played two big piano pieces, the Mozart and Richard Strauss’ Burleske, interspersed on a program with Dvorak’s Legends, a 10-part work originally written for piano and orchestrated by the composer. David Zinman conducted it all with his usual aplomb and attention to detail, but the pleasant, forgettable Legends lacks the endless invention of the piano works. In the Mozart concerto, Ax shaped phrases with a sure touch.

The rapport with Zinman made the gorgeous slow movement emerge organically, unhurried, like a flower unfurling. Something similar happened in the lively Rondo finale, where the rhythms sprang from Ax’s piano naturally and brightly. Ax’s cadenzas were a model of understatement, but when brilliance was called for, brilliance we got. Not many pianists play Mozart’s rapid runs with such fluidity and grace, yet land on the next measure neither too soon nor too late.

The Strauss is a quirky work, injected with as many inside jokes aimed at other composers as it is with flashy piano flourishes. Ax neither overstated the humor nor shortchanged the romantic aspects of the music. The duets with timpanist Jonathan Haas, one of the strange wonders of this work, came off well.

Earlier Saturday, faculty artists delivered a couple unforgettable moments in chamber music.

Pianists Anton Nel and Yoheved Kaplinsky brought a richness of texture and unanimity of spirit to Rachmaninov’s Suite No. 2 for two pianos that showed just how rewarding multi-piano music can be. Then pianist Wu Han joined hornist John Zirbel and violinist Alex Kerr for a romp through Brahms’ famous Horn Trio.

The playing of all three was compelling for the way they listened to each other and drew inspiration from the others’ playing. Kerr even made his fiddle sound like a horn in passages where he and Zirbel harmonized the same tune. Nel, Kaplinksy and Han, ultimately, made more satisfying music than did Kim on Friday evening in the Tent. A late replacement for an indisposed Helene Grimaud, Kim tackled Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 as if it were a sprint.

There was no lingering over telling details for this impetuous performer, no suspenseful buildups to climax, just a headlong rush through the music. Kim has phenomenal technique, which made it possible to play all the notes and even shape some phrases at high speed. But this approach trimmed some of the grandeur from Beethoven’s mightiest concerto.

Conductor Lan Shui, who has made something of a force of the Singapore Symphony, hurried through the music with Sinfonia, in the all-student orchestra’s unaccustomed spotlight. (The Chamber Symphony, which typically plays on Fridays, was occupied with Saturday’s special event with Ax.) He divided three of the “legends” from Smetana’s epic tone poem Ma Vlast, opening the evening with “Sarka” and combining “Vysehrad” (The High Castle) and “Vltava” (The Moldau, the most familiar portion) to finish the concert.

Perhaps spurred on by Kim’s haste, he pushed the tempos in these as well. It is possible to get much more spaciousness out of these musical tales. Sibelius’ great violin concerto has much more nuance and distinct Nordic flavor than what we heard Sunday in the Tent. James Conlon conducted it well, and Sarah Chang played it with an oversupply of gusto.

A fan favorite, Chang loves to pose and lean into phrases with her body, which in her tight green gown Sunday afternoon found her staggering about the stage. Chang can spin out a gossamer phrase when called for, and she has a great touch for nailing high notes, loud and soft, but she also has a tendency to make grotesque sounds in the low register, especially when she plays loud in the high range of lower strings. Pitch becomes wayward and articulation gets iffy. It’s clear that she knows exactly what Sibelius wanted from this concerto, but the gaps that have developed in her technique sabotaged the execution.

She also couldn’t seem to play soft for long. After one phrase, she would get louder and louder. In his continuing quest to champion the composer Zemlinsky, Conlon programmed his 1902 tone poem “The Mermaid” in the second half of the concert. Following Richard Strauss’ tone poem model, the piece takes the listener on a 45-minute tour of “The Little Mermaid” story in lush, romantic musical language.

The music has plenty for a listener to grab onto, including a lovely series of violin solos, fine tunes and lots of colorful orchestration. Conlon has a point that it deserves more attention.

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