Pianist out-dazzles ‘Carmina Burana’
August 20, 2007
ASPEN Clouds gathered and rain threatened Sunday afternoon for the Aspen Music Festival’s sold-out final concert of the season. But the sun emerged just as the chorus intoned the sublimely beautiful “Alleluia,” the final section of Igor Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms. Stravinsky would have smiled wryly.Puffy clouds dotted the blue sky outside the Benedict Music Tent by the end of “Carmina Burana,” Carl Orff’s profane cantata, which got a rousing performance from the Festival Orchestra, Colorado Symphony Orchestra Chorus, Colorado Children’s Chorus and the inspired singing of baritone Stephen Powell.But even the ringing power of “O fortuna,” the famous opening and closing page of the Orff, could not surpass the singular musical joys of pianist Vladimir Feltsman’s recital the night before.In the relative intimacy of Harris Hall, Feltsman lavished commanding technique on a short program of the four Schubert Impromptus Op. 90 and the four Chopin Ballades. He approached the Impromptus with lapidary simplicity, bringing a singing quality to his touch and pretty much played the music as written. For Chopin, the willfullness that often characterizes his work showed up in odd hesitations in the opening pages of No. 1 and No. 2, but the surge and sweep of the big romantic gestures through all four ballades was nothing short of breathtaking.Feltsman’s tone in the quiet moments created the sensation of drops in a still pool, but when Chopin asks the pianist to paint filigrees of runs around a melody, they spun out like billowing silk. He executed the climaxes with stunning accuracy, investing the music with an inevitability that thrilled like a raft over rapids. The single encore was a hushed, calming reading of Chopin’s delicate C# minor Nocturne.There was nothing delicate about “Carmina Burana” Sunday. Zinman whipped up tremendous power and a sense of inevitability for the big climaxes, even though details often got lost in the density of sloppy articulation. Repeats of phrases – and Orff repeats almost everything in this piece – often sounded cleaner and better on the third or fourth go-round. One more rehearsal might have helped get the chorus and orchestra on the same page.Apart from the big climaxes, the best parts of the cantata were the dramatic and comedic scenes of “In the Tavern” and the soft sensuality of the orchestral playing in “The Court of Love.”Powell carried the day among the singers, which is good because he gets the greatest share of the solo music. Coming off fine work as Sharpless in “Madama Butterfly,” Powell displayed a flexible sound and an actor’s command of the stage. His sozzled Abbot of Cucany was hilarious, and his injections of “oh, oh, oh” in “Tempest est locundum” carried just the right amount of lust. Tenor Richard Troxell negotiated the perilously high music of the roasted swan with comedic flair, at one point pivoting slowly as he sang of roasting on the spit. Soprano Elise Gutiérrez sang sweetly in the Court of Love section, but missed the creamy seduction of the final “Dulcissime.”On Thursday, the American String Quartet filled the vastness of the tent with beautifully articulated performances of the Dvorak String Quintet in G major (with Edgar Meyer on bass) and a moving post-9/11 piece by Robert Sirota. They opened with Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No. 3 in D major, jumping right into the lively first movement as soon as they sat in their chairs. There was a seamlessness and a flow to the Mendelssohn that kept a sense of elegance even as the music pulsed with life.In “Tryptich,” composer Sirota used the sounds of that fateful day in Lower Manhattan (including the buzz of the airplane in a sustained cello note and car alarms in the violins) to weave emotionally powerful music. It ends with a sort of quiet, sustained chorale, and it clearly connected with the audience.In the Dvorak quintet, Meyer mostly partnered the other musicians with discretion in a tuneful half-hour.Later Thursday, the early music ensemble rendered Handel’s famous “Water Music” with vigor and mostly true intonation. The valveless horns were especially impressive. Even better, the Bach Concerto for Three Violins featured three members of the orchestra in a lively performance.In Friday’s final Aspen Chamber Orchestra concert in the tent, conductor Murry Sidlin brought back the jazz theme with three pieces by Leonard Bernstein. Remember “Blue Notes”? We haven’t heard much of those In the past couple of weeks. Sidlin primed the crowd for Three Dances from “On the Town” by getting the audience to respond “Yeah, yeah” in syncopation as percussionist Jonathan Haas laid down a beat with snare drum and brushes.Then he turned to the orchestra and got a red-blooded rendition of this music and the suite from the ballet “Fancy Free,” both of which teemed with jazz and the other eclectic elements Bernstein favored. The musicians responded with (mostly) idiomatic playing.The concert opened with a carefully wrought performance of “Facsimile,” Bernstein’s rarely heard ballet of the same era, then digressed into two violin showpieces that had nothing to do with the rest of the concert. Soloist Valeriy Sokolov caught the swagger of Saint-Saëns’ Rondo Capriccioso but Schumann’s dense orchestral writing overshadowed the violin’s role in the composer’s Fantasy in C major.Harvey Steiman’s weekly commentary about the Aspen Music Festival is founded in 14 years of attendance and a background as a professional critic.