Bach trumps Brahms, with a little help from McGegan and friends |

Bach trumps Brahms, with a little help from McGegan and friends

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times

From Sunday to Wednesday, Brahms was the center of attention in the Aspen Music Festival’s prime-time concerts. on Thursday, however, the spotlight moved to Bach and his contemporaries, delivering a welcome change of pace in the hands of conductor Nicolas McGegan.

Not that there’s anything wrong with Brahms, of course, but Bach’s “Brandenburg Concerto No. 5,” featuring three of the festival’s A-list regulars was doubly infectious. Well known for his period-instrument band (Philharmonia Baroque), McGegan proved adept at catching the spirit of the era even on modern instruments with an all-student orchestra.

Alexander Kerr (violin) and Nadine Asin (flute) brought fluidity, precision and flair to their work in the concerto, but it was Anton Nel who dazzled most. Playing the extensive keyboard part on piano (it’s usually heard on harpsichord) made sense with all the other modern instruments on the stage, and it created a richer texture than the harpsichord’s jangling skeleton sound would. Nel made the rapid-fire runs, twists and turns fly with the breeze, almost nonchalantly bringing to life pages dark with 32nd notes, both as accompaniment and into the extensive first-movement cadenza. The slow movement unfolded with unity of purpose, and the finale danced with a sense of joy.

Willian Hagen (violin), a veteran of many summers as a student in Aspen, lavished a minimum of vibrato to create a lean Baroque-like sound and a sprightly sense of rhythm to Bach’s Violin Concerto in A minor. McGegan and the ensemble were especially sparkly in the two final pieces, a short selection from Handel’s “Water Music” and a colorful dip into a suite from Purcell’s “Faerie Queen.”

After Yefim Bronfman’s traversal of the “Piano Concerto No. 2” on Sunday, there was more Brahms Tuesday and Wednesday.

Playing the three Brahms violin sonatas Wednesday evening, Stefan Jackiw’s sweet violin sound combined with the soft-edged playing of pianist Anna Polonsky to make music that felt like a gauzy dream, perfect for a drawing room but perhaps less communicative to a rapt audience in 600-seat Harris Hall. The sonatas are full of singing passages for the violin, many of them quiet.

Despite this instinct for musical intimacy, quieter moments in the first half (Sonatas 2 and 3) often seemed tentative and breathy rather than silky. Broader phrases, with more intensity, came off better. Jackiw played the more extroverted Sonata No. 1 in G major with more assurance. Encores of miniatures by both Clara and Robert Schumann brought the evening to a quiet conclusion.

In Tuesday’s piano duo recital Polonsky and her husband, Orion Weiss dispatched Brahms’ “Variations on a Theme” by Schumann with grace, their four hands on the same piano. But the highlights of the program were two lighter-weight pieces: Fauré’s charming “Dolly” suite and “Barber’s Souvenirs.”

Though written over the years as birthday gifts for the daughter of a singer with whom the composer had a long-running affair, Dolly reflects a winning innocence, which the pianists captured neatly. Souvenirs, a collection of six pastiches of dance music, glistened with wit, especially in the mock-serious Hesitation-Tango. Its nimbleness made Saint-Saëns’ two-piano “Variations on a Theme of Beethoven,” the most technically challenging work on the program, seem like a show-off piece of technique over substance.

Four redoubtable pianists anchored Monday’s chamber music program, bringing weight and color to three less often-heard Romantic-era pieces in the vast spaces of the Benedict Music Tent (where passing rainstorms drummed on the tent roof before finally drenching the departing audience). The music highlighted three quite different pianistic styles.

Conrado Tao’s fluidity of attack and astonishing range of colors brought extra depth to Chausson’s “Piano Quartet in A major,” the string parts more conventionally fashioned by Naoko Tanaka (violin), Victoria Chiang (viola) and Michael Mermagen (cello). In Smetana’s emotionally wrought “Piano Trio in G minor,” Nel’s suppleness of tone complemented longtime faculty partners Kerr (violin) and Desmond Hoebig (cello), impressive for their communication and unity. And in a charmingly lightweight finale, longtime Israeli friends Arie Vardi and Yefim Bronfman shared a single piano in Schubert’s gentle Rondo in A major, all crystalline and pure.


Nel returns in today’s faculty chamber music program in Harris Hall to anchor more Brahms, this time the C minor piano quartet, with a starry faculty group — Sylvia Rosenberg (violin), James Dunham (viola) and Mermagen (cello). And Sunday in the tent, pianist Nikolai Lugansky, whose previous appearances at this festival have been showstoppers, takes on one of the pinnacles in Beethoven’s Concerto No. 5 “Emperor.” Larry Rachleff conducts a program that includes Debussy’s Prélude to the Afternoon of a Faun and Lutosloawski’s rollicking Concerto for Orchestra.

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