Takacs burrows deep into Britten and Schubert
The big deal concert in the Benedict Music Tent this weekend was to be Sunday, when David Robertson conducted the Aspen Festival Orchestra in Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2 and Brahms’ Symphony No. 1. But those who crowded into the 600-seat Harris Hall on Saturday night to hear the Takacs Quartet play Mozart, Britten and Schubert may beg to differ.The Boulder-based Takacs, regulars at this festival, just keeps getting better and better. Geraldine Walther, former principal violist of the San Francisco Symphony, joined the quartet only last year, but the four musicians already breathe together when they play, coloring phrases as if they were one big instrument. They burrow deep into the music, unearthing insights and special moments.The crowd-pleaser Saturday night was the Schubert Quartet “Death and the Maiden,” among the most famous in the chamber music canon. But I found the Britten Quartet No. 3 even more compelling, and the notion of leading off with the Mozart “Dissonance” Quartet made perfect sense, Mozart’s quaint idea of dissonance leading gently up to Britten’s.The Takacs seemed to intentionally emphasize the piece’s elegance and grace. This performance was about dynamic shading and shifts of musical color. Other ensembles dig into those protean triplets in the opening pages with greater rhythmic spring, but by favoring fleet tempos and accurate playing, the Takacs maintained plenty of forward motion.If the first movement seemed reticent, it was only to put the spotlight on he second movement, a series of variations on the Schubert song that gives the piece its title. This performance was so complete, so seamless, that it seemed to grow organically from the seeds of those opening pages.The song movement gained in intensity with each variation. By the demonic scherzo, the colors were turning harsher, the rhythms tougher. The rapid-fire finale created a sense of inevitability that swept through the rush of the final pages with irresistible momentum, even if moments like the expansive chorale in the finale winged by a little too fast to register all their glory.The elegant approach to Schubert made a perfect bookend with the opening Mozart work. Although the players aimed for cohesion and grace, they used some non-vibrato to emphasize Mozart’s dissonances. In the very first measure, a high A in Edward Dusinberre’s first violin scrapes against an A flat in Walther’s viola. It was not harsh to ears accustomed to 20th-century music, but the sound reminds us what this must have sounded like to Mozart’s audience.Despite moments of dissonance, Britten’s Quartet No. 3 expresses a melancholy beauty. Britten used musical material in this quartet from his last opera, “Death in Venice,” even more effectively than in the opera itself. Not only had Britten time to think about the music more, and, without that pesky narrative to get in the way, he conflated it into a tighter musical structure.The Takacs’ playing in this work was mesmerizing. The ghostly sounds they made in the quiet central movement, featuring Dusinberre’s filigree of a solo, were especially compelling (despite an explosive cough from an audience member that cut off the final fragile chord). The subtlety of the color shadings from phrase to phrase in the finale, built entirely of music from the opera, and in the opening movement, a series of duets pairing the two violins, viola and cello in every way possible, helped make this performance memorable.At Sunday’s concert, pianist Joyce Yang attacked Prokofiev’s notoriously difficult Piano Concerto No. 2 with jaw-dropping technique and an understanding of the music that goes far beyond her age (20). She evoked a crystalline sound for the gentle opening phrases that never turned harsh later, even as she kept her piano line completely audible against Prokofiev’s dense orchestration.This is muscular music. A mere slip of a young woman, she bites into the rhythms and achieves the same sort of power and sonic clarity that makes Martha Argerich’s playing so special. There is nothing soft-edged about her approach to Prokofiev’s music, nor should there be. Robertson seemed to be pushing the speed. Yang stayed right with him, without missing an inflection.Robertson favored fast tempos throughout the program. Speaker Robert Winter told a preview audience that the opening piece, “Ciaccona,” by the French composer Marc-André Dalbovie, is supposed to open with a 39-second crescendo on a single note. Robertson barely took 15 seconds for it. Fortunately, the piece isn’t about rhythmic tension. It wants to hover in space, relishing its orchestral colors and dynamics. Robertson caught that.But rhythm matters in the Brahms symphony, where the trick is to give the piece gravitas without indulging in too many slowdowns and grand pauses. Robertson took a no-nonsense approach, to put the best light on it. He pushed the tempo forward even in the adagio that begins the fourth movement. By scrupulously avoiding anything that could be considered an indulgence, he kept the orchestra on its toes, and he elicited sharply-edged playing all around.But the fleet tempos didn’t allow the music to breathe, to savor the moment. Time after time, the chance for a big dramatic statement went by untouched. The big horn solo, beautifully articulated by David Wakefield (of the American Brass Quintet), zipped past in a flash. The return of the chorale never broke stride.The result was an invigorating performance, but one that missed a lot of details.Not to miss this weekChamber music takes the forefront with three programs that look stellar on paper. Wednesday in the Tent, pianist Yefim Bronfman, violinist Gil Shaham and cellist Truls Mørk introduce their new ongoing trio to Aspen with two of the pillars of the literature: Schubert’s B-flat trio and Tchaikovsky’s. Thursday in Harris Hall, violist James Dunham and clarinetist Joaquin Valdepeñas join the Takacs for a program of Mozart quintets. And a long list of chamber specialists and soloists take their turns at Saturday night’s Season Benefit in the Tent, featuring chamber music to celebrate maestro David Zinman’s 70th birthday.Bronfman, Shaham and Mørk are back at 4 p.m. Sunday to play the Beethoven triple concerto with the Festival Orchestra. Zinman conducts that and Mahler’s heavens-defying Symphony No. 1.Harvey Steiman’s weekly commentary about the Aspen Music Festival is founded in 13 years of attendance and a background as a professional critic.
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Staging Hope: After arduous pandemic school year, Aspen High students stage hopeful musical for live audience
What: ‘Songs for a New World,’ presented by Aspen High School