Review: An embarrassment of riches for Aspen festival performances | AspenTimes.com

Review: An embarrassment of riches for Aspen festival performances

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN – Longtime Aspen Music Festival attendees are trying to remember a week with so many consistently outstanding performances. Usually one concert, or one work, stands out as the highlight from the generally high level. Tough to choose this week.

Do you go with Joshua Bell’s fresh, finesse-ful violin concerto in an all-Mendelssohn concert led by conductor Nicholas McGegan? The incendiary, sparks-flying Brahms piano quartet and quintet from the Takacs Quartet with guest artists Anton Nel and Alexander Kerr? The pure, warm, sensitive pianism of Ingrid Fliter’s recital? Or Christian Arming’s majestic conducting of the Mahler Ninth?

You pick. They were all great. When was the last time that happened?

The Takacs started this winning streak Tuesday with a Brahms quintet of panoramic beauty (followed on Wednesday by Gil Shaham, Lynn Harrell and Akira Eguchi having their own fun with Brahms). Saturday night in Harris Hall, the Takacs perhaps raised the bar even higher with more Brahms, the Piano Quartet No. 2 in A major and the Piano Quintet in F minor.

In the quartet, Nel’s piano melted seamlessly into the musical sensibilities of violinist Edward Dusinberre, violist Geraldine Walther and cellist Andras Fejer. Themes passed seamlessly from one instrument to the other as if they were all one big instrument. Tonal color adapted instantly to each change of musical thought. Pace, dynamics, phrasing, balance and, most of all, articulation found something close to perfection.

Nel and Fejer set the tone in the opening pages of the quartet. The piano’s rumbling arpeggios in the second movement seemed to emerge organically from some distant mountain. Throughout, the total sound had a warmth and sonic depth at every dynamic level.

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In the quintet, as each instrument took the lead, you could hear the component parts of the ensemble’s plush ensemble distinctly. Dusinberre’s pure, focused approach matched nicely with the warmth and clarity of Kerr’s (sitting in for the injured second violinist Karoly Schranz). Walther’s warm, vibrant tone had its own personality, and Fejer’s cello remained solid through the range. Nel coaxed a rainbow of colors from the piano, from a creamy soft legato at first to nail-punching staccatos in the fiery Scherzo, culminating in a huge, broad fortissimo that made the climaxes sound like a full orchestra. Exhilarating stuff.

Some sort of magical aura surrounded Bell, McGegan, the Aspen Chamber Symphony and the ghost of Felix Mendelssohn in their concert Friday night. The music pulsed with life, danced ever-so-lightly and seduced with its finesse and attention to the delicate details, especially in the often-heard violin concerto. Bell and McGegan created a palpable sense of intimacy that held a capacity audience breathless in the 2,050-seat Benedict Music Tent. With the orchestra laying down a swaying carpet of soft sound for Bell’s singing, sighing rendition of the opening theme, it was clear this was going to be something special. At every turn some detail made the familiar music sparkle and feel fresh. Rapid tempos left no time for indulgence, and Bell emphasized refinement, even in the fleet finale.

Bell also interpolated his own cadenzas in the concerto, developing several of the themes impressively but without overdoing the razzle-dazzle. That he saved for the encore, Vieuxtemps’ “Souvenir d’Amerique,” a set of finger-busting variations on “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” McGegan listened from a perch on the top riser, beaming broadly as Bell elicited giggles and gasps for his fiddle pyrotechnics. If anything, the conducting and orchestral playing went up a notch for the Symphony No. 5 in D major, “Reformation.” The gorgeous “Dresden Amen” in the strings (which Wagner later borrowed for his opera “Parsifal”), created a hushed beauty each time it occurred, the slight hesitation before the final chord bringing a catch in the throat. The exposition unfolded without fuss. The winds established a graceful attitude for the Scherzo, and the slow movement bathed in the beautiful aria-like melody without indulging. The finale, with its brass iterations of the Martin Luther hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” was nothing short of majestic. (Borrowed tunes were something of a subtext in this program. Aside from Wagner’s use of the Dresden Amen in “Parsifal,” in “The Legend of the Fair Melusine,” a tone poem on a traditional mermaid legend, watery figures in the clarinets prefigured a similar trope in Smetana’s “The Moldau.” And Andrew Lloyd Webber lifted the concerto’s main tune in the second movement for “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” in “Jesus Christ Superstar.”

Thursday night in Harris Hall, Fliter brought warmth and a conversational sense to her piano recital of Schumann and Chopin. Although she is not exactly short on technique, she is not about clinical precision, but focuses on tonal colors and personal turns of phrase to bring familiar pieces to life.

This was apparent in a set of Chopin waltzes, which concluded with the two well-known works in Op. 64. The C-sharp minor waltz had a soft, wistful quality, and the more dramatic D-flat major, commonly known as the “Minute Waltz,” exuded a puckish wit. In the first half Fliter played Schumann’s 12 Symphonic Etudes with admirable introspection, and she finished the concert by nailing the Grand Valse Brillante in E-flat.

Two pieces for clarinet and piano pieces featured her partner, Anton Pressler. He played Schumann’s Fantasiestücke and Poulenc’s Clarinet Sonata pleasantly enough, and blazed through an encore of Debussy’s “Premiere Rhapsodie.” More of Fliter and Chopin would have been better.

Sunday’s Festival Orchestra concert in the tent began with Andreas Haefliger, a Mozart specialist, in the composer’s Piano Concerto No. 12. He pushed and pulled on the tempo, rushed phrases, and never got in sync with the conductor. Visa delays that limited Austrian conductor Christian Arming to two rehearsals may have been to blame.

Fortunately there was a big Mahler symphony to save the day. The Symphony No. 9, an 85-minute journey into the beauty of melancholy, is always an occasion. After a tentative start, the pieces fell into place as the conductor drew idiomatic playing from the orchestra, dripping with just the right layering of schmalz. His mastery of the long arc of the music and ability to communicate pace and intensity built up irresistible momentum.

Credit the faculty artists, each stepping forward as needed to keep the momentum. Of special note, principal French horns David Wakefield and John Zirbel, principal trumpet Kevin Cobb, principal flute Nadine Asin, cellist Eric Kim and timpanist David Herbert rose to the occasion for their key solos. The massed student string players cooked up a rich, warm sound when needed, and if their intonation slipped slightly in the finale the feeling was there all afternoon.

In case that wasn’t enough, violinist Cho-Liang Lin, cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han rewarded those intrepid souls who stayed to the end of Saturday afternoon’s faculty chamber music concert with a gorgeous Beethoven Piano Trio in D major “Ghost.”

Not to miss this week: McGegan returns with all-star cast of faculty artists tonight in an all-Baroque evening. David Finckel and Wu Han take on all five Beethoven cello sonatas in a Wednesday night marathon. And Thursday in the tent, violinist Julia Fischer stands alone to deliver the three unaccompanied partitas by J.S. Bach. That same night, the Aspen Opera Theater Center gives its gala opening for Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville.”