REVIEW: One tour-de-force recital and a new piano quintet at the music festival |

REVIEW: One tour-de-force recital and a new piano quintet at the music festival

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times
Octavio Vazquez played his piano role with vigor and crystal clarity. (courtesy Aspen Music School and Festival)

Three piano performances took sharply different turns at the Aspen Music Festival this week. As he did in his explosive traversal of the Skryabin concerto Sunday, Daniil Trifonov triumphed in a program with an Olympics-level degree of difficulty Tuesday. Wednesday composer Octavio Vazquez delivered a highly satisfying new piano quintet commissioned by the festival that celebrated the music of his native Galicia. Andreas Haefliger was not so lucky in his recital Thursday.

Trifonov’s recital opened with Debussy’s Pour le piano. It’s dense and dissonant music, not as picturesque as the composer’s Éstampes or Children’s Corner, which came later. The pianist corralled the abstract piece’s complex technical challenges to shape it into endlessly fascinating, elaborate paragraphs.

Szymanowski’s third piano sonata, which followed, started fast and furious and segued into a lovely Adagio that colored its languid pool of rich harmonies with an undercurrent of darkness. Trifonov wrapped up the piece’s second-half recapitulations with a stentorian finish. Prokofiev’s puckish, spiky, highly rhythmic Sarcasms followed, with a neat combination of humor and swagger.

Having established that he could turn any challenge it into jaw-dropping music, seemingly unable to miss a note while keeping up frantic tempos, he turned to Brahms for the major work on the program. His bold and exuberant take on the F minor sonata made a strong argument that it should be considered as much a masterpiece as Brahms’ other two sonatas, which get played much more often.

Each of the five movements emerged as its own story. The tug-of-war between classicism and romanticism infused the first movement, the lyric beauty of the arching melody and rich harmonies framing the second. The third movement, a Scherzo in which Trifonov sprinkled its embellishments like a shower of jewels, led to a calm, almost sedate intermezzo. The pianist relished the finale, a rondo, glowing with Brahms’ unique ability to combine harmonic richness with counterpoint until it rode a beautifully built crescendo to a climactic finish.

Although Trifonov sidestepped any obligation to play Beethoven in an Aspen season where it seems every other program pays homage to that composer, there was a nod to Beethoven. Brahms’ third piano sonata insinuates the famous four-note rhythm of Beethoven’s fifth symphony as a sort of secondary motif at several points in the musical journey.

The richly textured encore was an almost Brahms-like arrangement (or improvisation?) of ‘Bist du bei mir,” an aria J.S. Bach didn’t write but included in a notebook for Anna Magdalena, his second wife. It was gorgeous.

One of Beethoven’s late string quartets, op.131, functioned as prelude to the American String Quartet’s world premiere of a piano quintet by New York-based Octavio Vazquez. Although both pieces have seven movements, an unusually large number, the purely musical abstractions of Beethoven’s quartet had little to do with Vazquez’s very specific inspirations, which embraced centuries of musical influences in Spain.

Commissioned by Aspen Music Festival and School, the new quintet revels in the rhythms and curlicues of the composer’s native Galicia (in northwestern Spain). A keen ear could also hear references to plainchant, medieval madrigals, hints of Flamenco Galician dance rhythms and Spanish popular songs of many eras, assembled into an evocative mix.

The six movements heard (more about that below) shift suddenly between sinuously slow tempos and bouts of excitable fast passages, giving the whole thing the feel of a free-form fantasia. This improvisational element feels fresh and keeps us on our toes. The musical language occasionally deals in spiky dissonances, but mostly yields an outpouring of emotion.

Vazquez played his piano role with vigor and crystal clarity, and seemed to light a fire under the members of the quartet. Their playing felt true to these musical cultures, from the melancholy twinge of the slow Moorish music to the juicy rhythms of Galician dance. It all came together effectively in the last movement played, which ended with terrific energy.

A program note suggests that Vazquez wanted to reflect the many outside cultural influences that have informed Spanish culture — Islamic, Jewish, Catholic, and more recent waves of immigrants. Unfortunately, Covid protocol-related time constraints led Vazquez to omit a seven-minute seventh movement, titled ‘Ay Linda Amiga.’ A full hearing will have to wait for performances this fall at Manhattan School of Music, where the quartet is in residence.

The Beethoven quartet’s seven movements unfolded with careful attention to details. The ensemble’s signature tonal clarity and subtle phrasing paid dividends as the score unfurled.

An elaborately shot performance by Hefliger playing Beethoven’s Hammerklavier sonata was one of the highlights of 2020’s video-streaming season. His admirable performance brought out the piece’s many details without indulging on excesses. That clarity was missing in his recital Thursday. Breakneck tempos, slurred phrases, and iffy articulation missed a good deal of what Beethoven wrote.

The very first notes of the recital signaled a problem. The opening measures of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 16 blurred the recurring chords when the right hand precedes the left by a quarter of a beat. The resulting syncopation should enliven the whole first movement, but what we heard were just simple chords. So it went, and the result were unsatisfying.

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


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