Two takes on Brahms prove worthy |

Two takes on Brahms prove worthy

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN ” Back-to-back chamber music concerts in Harris Concert Hall earlier this week ended with Brahms, provoking a delicious comparison. The star quality of violinist Cho-Liang Lin made Tuesday’s effort by an ad hoc sextet special. Wednesday’s Quartet in C minor glowed with the lithe and expressive sound and the tightly knit playing of the long-established Brentano Quartet.

Several rows of seating on the stage handled the overflow crowd in Harris Hall for Lin’s program on Tuesday. Billed as a recital, it followed more closely the format of the Thursday “An Evening With…” concerts in the tent, in which a featured artist plays chamber music with members of the artist faculty. In Harris Hall, one can hear the details more intimately.

There were empty seats for the Brentano the next night, which is too bad. The quartet in residence at this year’s Aspen Music Festival delivered exquisitely detailed and idiomatic playing in music that touched on the 17th, 19th and 20th centuries.

For their Brahms quartet, the Brentano took all the lard out of the music. Brahms can get turgid unless the musicians bring the right touch of energy to the dense harmonies. There was no lack of spirit in their playing, yet every note fell into place to highlight all of Brahms’ inner voicings, all the intricate workings from a master of development. Most striking was their deep level of communication and unanimity of approach.

Lin assembled a strong group to play the String Sextet No. 2. Violinist Adele Anthony plays with the Sejong Soloists. Violist James Dunham is a veteran of the Cleveland and Sequoia quartets. Violist Sabina Thatcher and cellists Eric Kim and Michael Mermagen all play lots of chamber music. They acquitted themselves well, especially in capturing the long arc of the form, but the texture got a bit thick in spots. But this work calls on the first violin to carry the ball most of the way, and Lin is a soloist with real presence. Despite some nagging minor intonation problems, his rich, expressive sound led the way and let the music take flight in all its roiling colors.

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No disrespect to Mark Steinberg, the Brentano’s fine first violinist, but a soloist of Lin’s stature makes a difference.

Both programs included Bartok as well. The Brentano lavished its most soulful playing on Bartok’s String Quartet No. 6. Written in 1939 at the outset of World War II, it reflects the despair in the air at the time, but the musicians’ approach was more complex than simply sadness. To get to a beautifully open-textured, despondent finish, they stopped en route for moments of joy and plenty of vigor. It was riveting performance.

Lin teamed up with clarinetist Joaquin Valdepenas and pianist Anton Nel for a rousing dash through Bartok’s Contrasts, a piece commissioned in 1938 by Benny Goodman. It makes insane demands on the clarinetist, which Valdepenas dispatched with his customary flair for rhythmic vitality and clarity of sound.

Before a soulful traversal of Ravel’s jazz-tinged Violin Sonata with Nel, Lin opened with a charming arrangement of music from Mozart’s The Magic Flute for four violins and string bass. The arranger, Julian Mulone, uses the bass’ sound, more muffled than that of the violins’, to great comic effect in music from the Act I quintet, where Papageno’s mouth is locked shut and he can only hum rhythmically.

The Brentano began with Steinberg’s arrangement of four madrigals by Monteverdi, which date from the early 17th century. Playing with virtually no vibrato, they captured the eerie beauty of this music. They followed with Roger Session’s Canons to the Memory of Igor Stravinsky, which packs a remarkable amount of subtlety into its one minute and change, so much so that a second or third run-through might have been warranted.

For Monday’s chamber music concert, bass trombonist John D. Rojak, who plays in the American Brass Quintet, premiered a new sonata by New Jersey-based composer Steve Christopher Sacco. The music is lyrical and resolutely euphonious, and it moves the trombonist away from brassy flourishes and comic glissandos toward arching melodies. Being a bass trombone, it dips often into growling territory well below the staff. Rojak invested it all with rock-solid articulation and a singer’s sense of how to shape a melody.

In Beethoven’s Piano Trio in D major “Ghost,” violinist David Halen, cellist Darrett Adkins and pianist Rita Sloan conjured an appropriately spooky mood for the famous slow movement and brought impressive energy to the rest.

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