Review: Fischer breathtaking in Bach Partitas | AspenTimes.com

Review: Fischer breathtaking in Bach Partitas

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN – She stands quietly in the middle of the stage at the 2,050-seat Benedict Music Tent, looking mildly amused. A long ponytail drapes over the shoulder that does not have a violin tucked above it. Her eyes close as if imagining the first few phrases she is about to play. She takes a small breath and begins the prelude to the first of three unaccompanied partitas by J.S. Bach, Holy Grail for classical violinists.

There are no histrionics, no dramatics, just a winsome Julia Fischer pulling a bow easily across the strings. She allows herself the occasional turn of the head, even a mild swoop of her body in tune with a phrase, but mostly she simply stands and plays. She looked hardly older than the students at the festival and school this summer, but what came out of her violin had jaws agape. Looking around the tent I saw virtually every high-level soloist in the music faculty raptly absorbing every nuance. Something special was happening.

It was easy to hear why she ranks at the top of the classical music world today. Everything looked effortless, and it sounded perfect. Double-stops, triple-stops, two or three lines going at once on a single violin, pages black with rapid-fire runs, it all just poured out with pinpoint accuracy and uncommon depth of expression.

The surprisingly sparse crowd Thursday night was treated to an amazing sense of transparency – nothing between you and the mind of Bach. The preludes spun out with every contrapuntal gesture in place, every development clearly delineated. The gavottes, minuets, courantes and bourrees lilted gracefully without missing any of the deft counterpoint. There was no sense of gearing-up for difficult passages; they just emerged organically from what came before.

The pinnacle of all violin music for many, the towering chaconne that concludes the Partita No. 2 in D minor, is said to contain every aspect of violin playing known to Bach. Just playing all the notes can defeat some pretty good fiddle players. Making those notes into the mountain that Bach created and infusing them with a sense of purpose distinguishes the great violinists. Taking the journey with Fischer was like conquering a tall peak with a great guide. The view from the top was epic.

For an encore she played the prelude of Ysaÿe’s Sonata No. 2, and could not keep from laughing at the joke in the first phrases. Subtitled “Obsession,” it quotes the opening bars of the Bach Partita No. 3, with which she started the program, then mashes it up with the Dies Irae.

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Friday night, performing with the Aspen Chamber Symphony under French conductor Emmanuel Krivine, music director of the Luxembourg Philharmonic, Fischer dug gleefully into the Khachaturian violin concerto. Written as a showpiece for David Oistrakh, it brims with Armenian spirit, especially evident in the glowing slow movement and the high-octane, dance-infused finale. The sly smile on Fischer’s face as she stepped forward to take the spotlight in the finale let us know how much fun she was having. The music was as infectious.

Krivine finished the concert with Brahms’ Symphony No. 4 in E minor. Although it had several moments of beauty, the textures felt thick and often the pulse slogged.

The highlight of Sunday’s concert was a rip-snorting performance of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra. Festival President Alan Fletcher made the point that this piece was perfect for Aspen. In much of the piece pairs of individual instruments take turns carrying the ball, and in the Festival Orchestra that means students playing alongside professionals. Conductor Michael Stern, looking oddly ill at ease, still whipped up plenty of energy and kept the piece on point rhythmically and in fine balance. Of special note were the duos of bassoons, trumpets, horns and harps.

Pianist John O’Conor took a stab at the Grieg Piano Concerto in the first half of the concert but his uninflected playing produced muddy textures in a dissatisfying performance.

Saturday night’s recital in Harris Hall introduced Aspen audiences to the Canadian-born flutist Marina Piccinini and the Brasil Guitar Duo. All of the music was adapted for flute and guitars by Douglas Lora, who shared guitar duties with João Luiz.

Here in Aspen with her husband, pianist Andreas Haefliger, who played on last Sunday’s concert, Piccinini started with several Bach sonatas, which demonstrated her command of the instrument if not much Baroque style. Much better was a second half of idiomatically performed South American music, especially three Brazilian choros and a final set of Piazzola tangos. Unfortunately Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasilieras No. 5, which the composer wrote for an orchestra of cellos to emulate a guitar, lacked drama when played by flute and guitars.

Not to miss this week: Opera buffs will not want to miss conductor James Conlon’s annual master class Tuesday at The Wheeler. Piano lovers must decide between that and Ann Schein playing Schumann and Chopin at Harris Hall. Thursday, Anton Nel leads a piano extravaganza at the tent, followed in Harris Hall by Robert McDuffie in the U.S. premiere of Philip Glass’ “The American Four Seasons.”