REVIEW: AMFS’s Off-the-beaten-path recitals score successes |

REVIEW: AMFS’s Off-the-beaten-path recitals score successes

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times


Saturday night’s free salute to the late Ed Berkeley features the 15 extraordinary singers in this year’s opera program in a concert in the tent they organized themselves. Sunday’s Aspen Festival Orchestra concert features Hugh Wolff conducting a program that features Tchaikovsky’s engaging Rococo Variations. Zlatomir Fung, who’s getting a whirl of attention, takes on the solo cello part.

On the face of it, you wouldn’t expect a program of piano works by Scarlatti, Schumann and Rachmaninoff to be, well, strange. Even if each of the four pieces on Behzod Abduraimov’s piano recital resisted pigeonholing into anything familiar, he executed the music with utmost care and sensitivity Wednesday in the Benedict Music Tent.

The most exotic, and the piece that best fit in Abduraimov’s wheelhouse, was Variations on a Theme of Corelli by Rachmaninoff, whose virtuosity as a pianist earned his reputation. He wrote it in 1931, a full 14 years after he stopped composing original solo piano music. (The only piano pieces that came later were transcriptions of Bach, Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky.)

A listener expecting the full-on Romantic style of the preludes or the piano concertos might be thrown by this work’s detours into offbeat rhythms, pungent harmonies and oddball musical gestures. Adburaimov relished all of it for a remarkable 18 minutes, somehow tying it together with tropes we might recognize from Rachmaninoff’s better-known music.

The theme (not by Arcangelo Corelli but a folk tune Corelli used for his own set of variations) might sound familiar because Liszt used it for his Rhapsodie espagnole. Abduraimov played the simple tune sweetly before diving into Rachmaninoff’s twists, which teemed with increasingly complex pianistic flourishes, tricky rhythms, and sudden shifts in pace and volume. It was dynamic stuff.

The recital, barely an hour long, started with two short sonatas by Scarlatti (a favorite gambit of Vladimir Horowitz’s). Though the composer was a contemporary of Bach and Händel, his 500-plus keyboard sonatas feel like they come from a different time. They sidestep contrapuntal complexity in favor of melody with accompaniment, more typical of music from a half century later. They also carry a distinct flavor of Spanish guitar music, which made the B minor sonata (K.27) especially juicy. The D major sonata (K.96), with its hunting horn harmonies, skipped along jauntily under this pianist’s fingers.

At the center of the program was Schumann’s Kreisleriana, highly experimental for its day. The title refers to a creepy fictional character in a tales by E.T.A. Hoffman (a writer best known today as the inspiration for Offenbach’s opera Tales of Hoffman). It offered an especially clear look at Schumann’s penchant for eccentricity.

Abduraimov grabbed onto the driving rhythms and highly chromatic harmonies and gave it quite a ride, ending with a radiant quotation of a sunny tune (which found its way into the composer’s Spring symphony), fading into a gentle wisp after all that storminess.

Sharon Isbin’s solo recital Thursday had a personal touch. She told a rapt audience in the tent that it was her first before a live audience since the advent of the pandemic. Her introductions to each piece often included accounts of composers she knew. In finishing the concert with several short pieces by Agustín Pío Barrios Mangoré, she recalled playing his “Julia Florida” for the great Andrés Segovia, who disliked the Paraguayan guitarist and composer of Guaraní origin. “It was the last lesson I had with Segovia,” she deadpanned.

That piece highlighted the succession of brief works that made up Isbin’s recital, which totaled just over an hour. The many short pieces combined to paint a remarkably full picture of classical guitar music. It spanned the modern guitar era, from the haunting “Capricho arabé” by Francisco Tárrega (who, Isbin suggested, revolutionized writing for guitar in the late 19th century) to “Porro,” which Gentil Montaña wrote in 2008. The graceful encore, an arrangement of “Jerusalem of Gold,” by Naomi Shemer, was even more recent.

Although Isbin generally favored congenial musical styles in this program, she also included the Cuban composer Leo Brouewer’s 1971 “La espiral eterna,” which employed a fascinating range of space-age acoustic guitar effects. She opened the evening with three Villa-Lobos’s 12 guitar études, giving audiences a chance to hear the more advanced writing in pieces other than the often-heard No. 1.

What came through most in this recital was Isbin’s personal warmth, especially in flawless playing that invited the ear without coddling it.

As for Monday and Tuesday’s gaudy tribute to the Broadway composer Richard Rodgers, a special event in the tent, the less said the better. A joint effort by the music festival and Theater Aspen, it featured a cast of four Broadway stars and an ad hoc orchestra led by Andy Einhorn. Heard Tuesday, ham-fisted audio engineering overwhelmed any good singing or music-making I detected, the sound turned into an annoying blare.

Also, whoever wrote the script favored jests over insights and gave insultingly short shrift to Rodgers’ collaborations with Lorenz Hart. Even the focus on his partnership with Oscar Hammerstein II got an embarrassingly light treatment.

Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival for 28 years. His reviews appear Tuesdays and Saturdays in The Aspen Times.


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