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The magic of live performance

Harvey Steiman

It takes a lot to outshine a Verdi Requiem, but leave it to pianist Vladimir Feltsman to make such an indelible mark in two performances this past week.The Russian-born pianist shares an enormous gift for technique. He can rip through rapid passages as if they were child’s play, pull at tempos like taffy, thunder through loud sections in a sonic blur, and all a listener can do is sit back and marvel.Last Tuesday, Feltsman wowed a recital audience with his own compelling brand of Bach and Chopin, the highlight being a Chopin Ballade No. 3 in A-flat major of crystalline brilliance. Then, in the final Harris Hall program of the festival Saturday evening, Feltsman delivered a gleaming diamond when he teamed up with several of the festival’s most compelling faculty and guest artists.Violinist Oleh Krysa, whom we hear far too seldom here, and cellist Thomas Grossenbacher, who always seems to make the musicians he collaborates with better, combined with Feltsman for a raw, exhilarating Shostakovich Piano Trio No. 2. Violist Kathleen Mattis joined them for a vigorous rendition of Mozart’s Piano Quartet in G minor, and Joaquin Valdepeñas contributed his gorgeous clarinet playing to the stunning finale, Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time.Grossenbacher’s first pianissimo traversal of Shostakovich’s opening folklike theme in sky-high harmonics didn’t sound as pure as it should, and Feltsman set such a rapid pace for the second movement that the quick crescendos that make the music feel so, well, Shostakovichlike, lost some of their oomph. But the passion of their playing made a cumulative effect that was simply overwhelming.This is live performance. It’s part of the price we pay for such thrills as the third movement of the Trio, a heart-rending passacaglia in which Feltsman’s pillars of chords supported the shrugging pathos of Krysa’s Fiddler-on-the-Roof turn at a Hebraic melody. (Shostakovich wrote the piece as a tribute to a recently deceased Jewish violinist friend, and it is rife with Hebrew tunes and turns.) The finale was sheer magic, a fantasy of all the tricks and turns possible in a string quartet forged into unforgettably powerful music. The trio sounded like a full orchestra at times, finishing with a heart-stopping hush.Messiaen’s astonishing outpouring of love and religious devotion, the Quartet for the End of Time, was his answer to incarceration as a prisoner of war. It uses a clarinet in place of a viola because that’s what the composer had available to him in the prison camp. Pungent dissonances rub shoulders with pure, gorgeous, open chords. Rhythms, which at first seem to lurch this way and that, somehow coalesce into something that makes perfect sense. And through it all, bird song, which Messiaen defines in a way that no other composer even attempted. The result is a raw naturalism, and when it works, as it does in this piece, it infuses a listener’s senses.The three solo movements were riveting. Valdepeñas, all alone, molded Messiaen’s bird calls into a clarinet solo that unfolded like an inspired improvisation. Entrances came out of nowhere and died away like ghosts. Rapid-fire articulation in all registers was a hallmark. Feltsman’s quiet, insistent accompaniment framed Grossenbacher’s long, slow, singing line and Krysa’s absolutely gorgeous, tonally consonant violin solo in the finale, which closes with music that rises gently into the stratosphere in both the piano and the violin.The ensemble sections had a muscular dimension that gave the piece its momentum, especially in the panoply of birdsong in the opening movement, the lively dance of the fourth movement and the juicy rhythms of the sixth. Through it all, Feltsman’s unstoppable sense of propulsion made him the perfect collaborator for the other soloists in this music.The Messiaen and Shostakovich pieces fit into “Forbidden Music: Silenced Voices,” the last of the minifestivals embedded in this year’s festival. Conductor James Conlon, who champions the music of several European composers whose lives and works were suppressed by the Nazis, began the weekend Friday by sandwiching Shostakovich and Schubert around a piano concerto by Ullmann, a Czech composer who perished at the hands of the Third Reich.The concerto, written in 1939, didn’t get its world premiere until 1992. Light-hearted, snappy, sprightly and quick, it barely covers 17 minutes, but it’s densely packed with musical ideas. Especially striking in the first movement is the way the piano answers growling, jagged chords in the trombones and tuba with its own reflection of the same chords in the low register. The movement ends with the timpani picking up and finishing the melodic phrase.The finale dances a sort of off-kilter jig in 5/4. The two middle movements, a soft andante tranquillo and a lively fugato marked allegro, give the piano some lovely, almost jazzlike music to play. Conlon made a strong case for the piece. Pianist Christopher Taylor contributed clear, colorful playing.Conlon could have caught more of the sardonic wit in Shostakovich’s neoclassical, witty Symphony No. 9, which opened the concert, but it would be hard to beat the long, noble solo by principal bassoon Steven Dibner. Scaling the highest range of the instrument with gorgeous sound, pouring out the recitativelike melody like a Slavic baritone in full cry, Dibner brought depth and pathos to the emotional center of the work, suggesting what Shostakovich called the Russian soul he wanted to preserve in the face of the Soviet regime.A couple of trios turned out to be the highlights of a long Saturday afternoon chamber concert focusing entirely on those “forbidden” composers. Clarinet Trio in A Minor by Carl Frühling, a Jewish composer born in Poland who died in poverty in Vienna, sounded like something Brahms might have written if he had lived into the 20th century. Bil Jackson played the clarinet solos gently. An offbeat little Concertino for Flute, Viola and Bass by Erwin Schulhoff, like Ullman a Czech Jew, found Nadine Asin alternating on flute and piccolo and playing a lot of pretty pentatonic flourishes against bouncy rhythms and countermelodies from violist Lawrence Dutton and bassist Eugene Levinson.Are these long-lost works on the same level as Messiaen and Shostakovich? Probably not. But, as concertgoer Mark Harrison commented at intermission, “It is such a privilege to hear this music.”The Verdi Requiem closed out the music festival Sunday with plenty of sweep and power generated under the baton of David Zinman by a solid team of soloists, the Aspen Festival Orchestra and the visiting Colorado Symphony Chorus from Denver. They whipped up the drama Verdi packed into this score, but mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe was the only one of the four soloists who crafted a performance of analloyed splendor. The chorus sounded great at times but the altos and tenors tended to muddy the texture, especially in the dancelike Sanctus.Soprano Lisa Daltirus strained for a few high notes, but mostly bathed Verdi’s soaring melodies with rich, creamy sound. Tenor Philip Webb also strained at the high range and never made much of the Ingemisco. Bass Morris Robinson gave his lines the weight they deserved, overcoming some early unsteadiness.Blythe simply did everything a mezzo can do in this music. Displaying a powerful low register and gleaming high notes, she brought out all sorts of unexpected details in her lines. She could caress a long line, as she did in a gorgeous Lacrymosa, or put the fear of God into a listener, as in the first Dies irae.The final Libera me, with Daltirus caressing its extended soprano solo around a final iteration of the Dies irae, brought things to a calm and restful close.Harvey Steiman’s weekly commentary about the Aspen Music Festival is founded in 12 years of attendance and a background as a professional critic. This is his final review of the season.


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