Emerson, Hamelin do well by Schubert

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times

This season’s emphasis on Romantic composers, both recent and past, went all 19th-century this week in two recitals at Harris Hall. Pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin and the Emerson Quartet both focused squarely on Schubert, with nothing on either menu later than Liszt.

Hamelin’s moody and utterly captivating traversal of the Schubert Piano Sonata in B-flat major was the highlight of a program that also paired the composer’s much lighter Piano Sonata in A major with a charming piece that Liszt wrote in homage to Schubert.

There were moments in this program where that bravado that comes from formidable technique was called for, and Hamelin delivered. But mostly he put the emphasis on the music instead of the pianist, as in a crystalline, almost self-effacing performance of the A-major Sonata. But when he turned to a Liszt piece, No. 6 of a series of nine written to evoke Schubert’s improvisations in Vienna, he reveled in Liszt’s trademark dynamic pianism.

In the tranquil opening pages of the B-flat Sonata, soft chords sing a gentle song interrupted by quiet rumbling trills in the lowest end of the piano’s range. With slight hesitations and ever-so-softly executed low trills, Hamelin made it feel as if he were Schubert himself composing the piece right before our ears, inviting us into his world. That sense of freshness and urgency hung like a glow throughout the leisurely paced first two movements. The short, quick Scherzo that followed popped with vitality and yet maintained the required delicacy. In the finale, with its cheerful main theme interrupted by stormier passages, he finally let out all the pent-up energy in a brilliant coda.

The encore, a Schubert impromptu, was absolutely appropriate and played with the requisite elan.

Beethoven broke the mold for the string-quartet genre when he wrote his String Quartet in C-sharp minor, Op. 131. In this piece he jettisoned the standard four-movement format and folded together a series of short musical essays that culminate in a final movement of extraordinary depth and quiet power. Listening to the piece is like reading poetry, mesmerized by how the poet has put spun things out with such artistry. With every turn of the page, however, we slide into an alternate universe. Not until the end does it all come together.

In their performance of this piece Tuesday, the Emerson Quartet articulated each phrase with care and the sort of unanimity that comes from decades of playing together. (Even cellist Paul Watkins, who replaced David Finckel in the group last year, was totally on the same page.) As cleanly executed as these short sections were, they had a practiced, calculated air. The score came through so clearly you practically could see the notes on the page. What was missing was freshness. I had the sense that everyone knew what was coming next, dulling Beethoven’s surprises.

Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” quartet came together with more animation, a rhythmic vitality propelling the momentum as Schubert’s phrases accumulated power. The finale, taken at top speed, finished with a captivating breathlessness, and it drew the standing ovation that the Beethoven did not.

Conductor and harpsichordist Nicholas McGegan’s Baroque Evening on Wednesday gave us a break from the prevailing 18th-century vibe, offering a mix of offbeat pieces by J.S. Bach, C.P.E. Bach, Telemann and the super-obscure Francesco Biscogli. Although the quality of the compositions varied, the level of playing was high, especially among the featured faculty soloists.

Flutist Nadine Asin showed formidable Baroque virtuosity in Telemann’s Suite in A minor, notably the eighth and 16th notes zipping by vigorously and accurately in the rapid-fire “Rejoissance.” In an otherwise unremarkable Biscogli concerto, Elaine Douvas contributed florid oboe playing; bassoonist Per Hannevold broad, rich sound; and Kevin Cobb a lovely, limpid, sinuous sound on piccolo trumpet. Finally, in J.S. Bach’s concerto for three violins, Nakao Tanaka, Fabiola Kim and Edson Scheid rode the crests of continuous and ever-more-complex upwellings for an invigorating finale.

Not to miss in the coming days

On Monday night in Harris Hall, jazz guitarist Bill Frisell and his quartet play his blues-steeped music for the film “The Great Flood,” the 1927 Mississippi River disaster that had a profound impact on American culture. It should be an extraordinary event. Orchestral concerts this weekend feature pianist Joyce Yang playing the Grieg tonight with the Chamber Orchestra under Osmo Vanska and violinist Robert McDuffie playing the Tchaikovsky on Sunday with the Festival Orchestra under Thierry Fischer. This evening, Aspen music lovers can get to know the redoubtable Pacifica Quartet, which plays Shostavich and Schnittke in Harris Hall.

Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival for 20 years. His reviews appear twice a week in The Aspen Times.