Review: Pianist Nicolai Lugansky grabs the spotlight at the music festival

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times

Nicolai Lugansky has become one of those few whose Aspen Music Festival performances are all but guaranteed to be memorable. Sunday’s magical, thrilling rendition of Rachmaninoff’s evergreen Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini will surely be remembered as one of the highlights of this summer’s concert experiences.

Lugansky’s touch was, at the same time, lyrical and crisply dramatic, dripping with urgency, responding to each turn of the music with new tone and fresh colors. Conductor James Gaffigan matched the pianist in zeal, getting animated playing from the orchestra without getting in Lugansky’s way.

Gaffigan set a quick tempo at the start, and Lugansky kept pushing it faster, yet details were not lost. The big tune, which arrives in the second half of the 22-minute piece, got a nice expansion from the orchestra, and the composer’s reprises of the “Dies Irae” in the orchestra pushed the pianist to a high point on the final pages.

Responding to a thunderous and prolonged ovation from the nearly full Benedict Music Tent audience, Lugansky turned to one of Rachmaninoff’s more delicate Preludes. The G-sharp minor prelude glistened with the sparkle of diamonds in its flashing trills and octave tremolos against the unfurling lyrical line.

The concert opened with a strange and oddly intriguing experiment in sonics and orchestra effects by the Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir, “Aeriality,” from 2011. The bass clef instruments growled and grumbled, the top keening with swirling woodwind and brass effects in an effort to approximate a feeling of flying. The slow-moving time scale felt massive, and the piece drifted into silence even as Gaffigan kept conducting the final measures.

A bracingly taut and fast-paced rendering of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” bristled with terrific contributions from individual members. Per Hannevold’s opening bassoon statement sneaked in as if from a distance. The expanded flute section’s oscillating chords to open the second half of the piece, and individual glosses from English horns and bass clarinets, added touches of color. Most impressive to these ears was the interplay among the percussionists, especially in Jacob Nissly’s bass drum electrifyingly crescendoing the triplets leading into the “Dance of the Earth” and the quietly ponderous dance in the “Ritual of the Ancients” between Nissly’s bass drum on the beat and the offbeat chords produced by timpanist Edward Stephan.

For all that, enviable precision in orchestral ensembles by the entire stage full of players produced the big thrills.

Saturday night’s recital by the Escher String Quartet amply demonstrated that all the fuss about this juicy young group is well deserved. Despite two recent personnel changes at second violin, their sense of unity seemed unaffected, as did their willingness to go for intensity and expressivity without losing an innate elegance.

Cellist Brook Speltz introduced Charles Ives’ String Quartet No. 2, a thorny work that titles its movements “Discussion,” “Arguments” and “The Call of the Mountain,” by noting that the iconoclastic composer would have loved being sandwiched between Mozart and Schubert. Ives, after all, lived to stir things up, and the contrast with those composers only amplified that aspect.

This group captured Ives’ quirky mixture of brash dissonance with familiar hymns and songs. They pulled it together into a finale that shook off the conflicts of the first two movements and found a semblance of peace in the final gentle pages.

In the Mozart F major Quartet, which opened the show, and Schubert G major Quartet, which concluded it, the Escher pushed dynamic contrasts and rhythmic urgency to the edge of overdoing it. But they never lost the clarity of articulation and sonic balance that lent refinement to the music. The Schubert, in particular, reveled in the quick tempos of the fleet Scherzo and the galloping Allegro assai, the beat clear and the individual lines coming through with zip. That made a nice contrast to the Andante, gentle but moving nicely to keep the singing lines unfolding with purpose.

Every shift in the Mozart quartet’s harmonies carried with it an element of surprise, thus giving a lift to a performance that owed much to grace and sprightly articulation. Mozart’s ensemble writing let individual instruments emerge from the interplay for brief glimpses in the light, revealing first violin Adam Bennett-Hart’s precision, violist Pierre Lapointe’s rich texture and Speltz’s cleanly drawn cello lines as they popped up before fitting back into the ensemble sound.

Earlier Saturday, the afternoon chamber music program followed a charming piece for flute and 11-piece ensemble by Judith Shatin with a remarkably satisfying romp through Dvorák’s Piano Quartet in E-flat major. Alexander Kerr’s violin, Stephen Wyrczynski’s viola, Brinton Smith’s cello and Anton Nel’s piano found an endlessly intriguing interplay, these four festival favorites clearly enjoying the rhythmic and melodic ride together. Their enthusiasm and high-level playing were infectious to hear.

Friday’s Aspen Chamber Orchestra program felt more like a pops concert than the serious stuff of most Aspen Music Festival events, but it made for an enjoyable evening.

The centerpiece, Khatchaturian’s violin concerto, got a vigorous, nicely nuanced performance from lanky young Stephen Waarts. He stepped in for the previously announced Sergey Khachatryan, who canceled only a few weeks ago. The 23-year-old Dutch-American phenom tore into the Armenian-tinged music with gusto, but modulated intensity and dynamics deftly to shape the more lyrical sections. Conductor Markus Stenz and parts of the orchestra weren’t always on the same page in terms of tempo, but the soloist’s work carried the day.

Stenz has become a dramatically demonstrative conductor, not always to the benefit of the music. Togetherness, a problem in the concerto, also was hit-and-miss in the otherwise brashly played opener, Chabrier’s extroverted rhapsody España. Things improved in the second half with a more focused performance of Bartók’s Dance Suite, written about the same time as his “Miraculous Mandarin” ballet, but not nearly as challenging to the ear (and not as colorful or original, either).

A mishmash of two complementary suites by Bizet from his opera “Carmen” hit most of the familiar highlights, though mostly with rough articulation, finishing with a Gypsy Dance from Act 2 that revved up to wild abandon — and all together.


Lugansky’s solo recital Tuesday in Harris Hall focuses on French music by Franck and Debussy and the Sonata No. 3 by Skryabin, the Russian composer who might best be compared with French counterparts. Violinists are in the spotlight Wednesday — Nicola Benedetti in Wynton Marsalis’ violin concerto with the Aspen Philharmonic at 6 p.m. in the music tent and Augustin Hadelich (with pianist Orion Weiss) at 8:30 p.m. in Harris Hall in a recital ranging from Beethoven to John Adams. There’s more violin Friday with Midori playing the Schumann concerto with the Aspen Chamber Orchestra in the tent.

Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival for 25 years. His reviews appear in The Aspen Times Tuesdays and Saturdays


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