Big Beethoven, warm Berg, and Technicolor Shostakovich
Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in a lavish benefit performance was the big draw last weekend at the Aspen Music Festival, but the most satisfying music-making came the next day. Christian Tetzlaff’s Berg violin concerto was about as good as it gets, and Michael Stern’s borderline rabid traversal of the Shostakovich Symphony No. 10 barely left the roof on the tent.The Berg concerto is a strange and wonderful beast. It is atonal, but Berg creates romantic sonorities and plush resonances that make the tone rows seem lyrical. Tetzlaff was nothing short of magical, bringing the utmost delicacy and real romantic feeling to the music. His tone was sweet and warm, the phrasing shaped with the same care a violinist might lavish on Mendelssohn or Mozart.Stern was right there with him, drawing a floating cloud of a pianissimo from the Aspen Festival Orchestra when Tetzlaff brought his sound to the quietest of dynamics. Their phrasing was unanimous, rare enough any time, virtually unheard of in a one-shot festival date. After four curtain calls, Tetzlaff acknowledge his standing ovation with a remarkable encore, the Largo from Bach’s unaccompanied violin sonata in C. It was a heart-stoppingly pure, hushed, time-suspending, you-could-hear-a-pin-drop-in-the-tent moment.The Shostakovich 10th has its quiet times, too, but inevitably they build into massive fortissimos and crashing climaxes. Stern corralled this hour-long symphony into a rhythmically potent performance that still gave plenty of space for the strings to let their soft phrases hang in the air. Soloists distinguished themselves all over the stage, most notably bassoonist Steven Dibner and clarinetist Ted Oien.Berg and Shostakovich. Who would have thought they would overshadow the Beethoven Ninth? But they did.The tent was jam-packed Saturday night for “The Ninth on the Ninth,” and music director David Zinman drew plenty of energy from the assembled forces of the Aspen Chamber Symphony, the Colorado Symphony Orchestra Chorus from Denver and an uneven quartet of vocal soloists.Zinman favors quick tempos, especially in the opening and closing movements. This has an invigorating effect, but it also makes for less of a contrast with the second movement unless the already fast scherzo goes at a breakneck clip. Zinman eased up to allow the details of the scherzo to speak. It danced by nimbly and the noble slow movement maintained its pulse and rich textures, but the opening measures of the symphony came off as perfunctory. In the finale, the recitative-like statements of the cellos and basses sounded almost like a march, which is hardly what Beethoven intended.These carpings aside, momentum did gather as Zinman shaped a series of satisfying climaxes. Other than a couple of croaked high notes, bass Kurt Link set the vocal portion of the finale into motion well. Tenor Vinson Cole and mezzo soprano Susanne Mentzer, both Aspen regulars, made the most impressive contributions to the vocal quartet. Soprano Hyanah Yu displayed a lovely sound but seemed underpowered for the assignment. The chorus powered up for some big sounds, even if it missed some of the magic of the quieter moments.The concert opened with Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy, a hybrid work that starts off like it might be a piano concerto (Joseph Kalichstein played the thankless soloist’s role with a few clunkers). Then it morphs into a choral work, finishing up like an eerie premonition of the Ninth’s finale. Its many musical gestures are so similar to the Ninth’s that it might have robbed the later piece of its power, if the Ninth were any less of a majestic work than it is.This was a busy week for string aficionados. Even before Tetzlaff, in a three-day span the conductorless 22-member International Sejong Soloists played in two concerts, the second night backing up the American violinist Cio-Lang Lin in a remarkably lucid account of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. And finally the Kronos Quartet made an electric (literally) appearance, offering an international mixed bag of new works and composer Steve Reich’s intensely moving 1988 masterpiece Different Trains. (See Stewart Oksenhorn’s review in Monday’s Aspen Times.)The Sejong are audience favorites here. Even with 15 or 20 musicians on stage, they play in preternatural synch, with the unanimity of style of a string quartet. These attributes were present in abundance in Mahler’s transcription for string orchestra of Schubert’s string quartet “Death and the Maiden.” Tasmanian-born Adele Anthony, the concert master (mistress?), took the solo turn in Hartmann’s Concerto funèbre, a heart-on-sleeve reflection of what things were like in 1930s Nazi Germany. Anthony produced rich, lush sounds in the low register, lovely cantilena in the middle and ascended into the highest reaches of the violin’s range with accuracy and purity.On Thursday night’s concert in the tent, Cio-Lang Lin opened with a forgettable solo violin work by Esa Pekka Salonen and then played lively sonatas by Stravinsky and Debussy with Kalichstein before giving over the second half to The Four Seasons.It’s rare to hear a Four Seasons done with such freshness and vitality. It’s such a familiar work, dangerously overexposed, but these musicians played as if they were discovering it for the first time. Delicate accompaniments in the ensemble violins had an expectant hush that let Lin’s solo line emerge naturally. The string playing in Baroque style, minimized vibrato for a bracing effect, despite an occasional difference of opinion on pitch. Cascades of unison scales ripped by in a flash, every note enunciated as the whirlwind whipped past. Anthony Newman’s harpsichord and cellist Ani Aznavoorian’s colorful continuo added further life. Lin played with clarity and style, avoiding any unnecessary flourishes but reveling in those that Vivaldi put there.In short, this was a Four Seasons that sounded like it ought to, vivid and finely detailed without losing the essential pulse. Not to miss this weekFiddle fanciers should be in paradise, what with Gil Shaham, Joshua Bell, Cio-Lang Lin and Nadia Salerno-Sonnenburg on the docket. Shaham’s “Evening with…” on Thursday promises music of Gershwin, Piazzola and Prokiev. On Friday, Joshua Bell plays Corigliano’s “Red Violin” concerto, which was written for him. On Saturday in Harris Hall, Lin joins pianist Wu Han and her husband, Emerson Quartet cellist David Finckel in a Harris Hall recital. Salerno-Sonnenburg tackles Barber’s seminal American violin concerto on Sunday.Aspen Opera Theater’s first summer production, Janacek’s miracle of operatic brevity, The Cunning Little Vixen, plays tonight, Thursday and Saturday at the Wheeler Opera House.Saturday afternoon’s chamber music potpourri in Harris Hall is a tribute to the late Philip West, the much-loved English horn virtuoso who spent many summers here in Aspen, teaching and playing.Harvey Steiman has been coming to Aspen annually for the music festival since the early 1990s. His comments on selected concerts will appear weekly.
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Max Weintraub has been senior curator at the Aspen Art Museum since January 2019.