Eaglen misses, but Strauss’ songs still moving
August 13, 2008
ASPEN ” There was much to appreciate in Jane Eaglen’s performance of Strauss’ Four Last Songs on Sunday afternoon at the Music Tent. Her phasing and the clarity of her German diction did honor to the poetry, and the more delicate musical phrases could be heart-stoppingly beautiful. She caught the emotion in these moving songs.
But flawless it was not. She often seemed under pitch. The loud parts, especially in the first song, “Frühling,” could turn squally. She slid through the eighth-note figures in the third song, “Beim Shlafengehn,” made all the more apparent by principal horn John Zirbel’s perfect articulation of them in response. And it seemed to take until the final song, “Im Abendrot,” for conductor Ingo Metzmacher to find a telling balance that could let both the Aspen Festival Orchestra and the soprano shine. Which they did, especially in the final pages of the score.
Metzmacher seemed to be having a restless day on the podium. He got to a lovely finish to the opening piece, Messiaen’s early “meditation,” “The Forgotten Offerings,” but Brahms’ Variations on a Theme of Haydn never found a rhythmic groove. Debussy’s “La Mer” swelled and buffeted effectively, just like the ocean it depicts, but it missed too many of the fine details and especially the transparency that makes it such a unique work.
Saturday night in Harris Hall, listening to the American String Quartet (ASQ) play Schubert, Webern and a rare chamber work by Bruckner, what struck me most was the way every phrase, every line, every gesture had been thought through. Nothing was tossed off. Nothing just cruised. Everything had an idea behind it, and it was flawlessly executed.
In classical music, where the notes were written in previous centuries and there are dozens if not hundreds of previous performances to learn from, the trick is to hone the details to a fine edge and still find a way to make it come alive and sound fresh. The ASQ’s secret is that its members really enjoy making music together. They are a model for what a string quartet should be: four individual voices that find a comfortable fit.
That was especially evident in, of all things, Webern’s Five Pieces, Op. 5. The atonal piece, remarkable for its brevity (nine minutes) and panoply of sonic effects, usually gets a fairly icy performance that emphasizes the clashing harmonies. Realizing that Webern wrote most of those dissonances to be played very quietly, the ASQ imbued them with a warmth that almost made the music glow.
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That same warmth carried over into the other curiosity on their program, Bruckner’s String Quintet in F major, as consonant as the Webern was dissonant. Known for his majestic symphonies and masses, the composer wrote virtually no chamber music. Even in this one, a listener can feel the composer’s urge to expand the music beyond what five instruments can do. With John Graham joining the ASQ on viola, the piece got a warm and expansive reading, especially in the sonorous and beautiful Adagio. The quartet opened the program with Schubert’s late String Quartet in G Major, which aimed for a more graceful approach than the dramatic elements most quartets mine in this work.
In Friday’s Aspen Chamber Symphony concert, conductor Peter Oundjian devoted serious attention to some very familiar music, including Rossini’s “William Tell” Overture and Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, and whipped up a big sound for the less-familiar tone poem “Francesca da Rimini” by the ever-popular Tchaikovsky. It’s the sort of music classical music stations play often to appeal to a wider audience but doesn’t get programmed much here in Aspen. These were satisfying performances all around, especially Mark Sparks’ flute solos in both the Rossini and Debussy and Nicholas Arbonilo’s plangent English horn solo in the Rossini. Violinist Valeriy Sokolov deployed formidable technique in Bartok’s Violin Concerto No. 2, but he took a chilly approach, favoring precision over the rhythmic and melodic vitality that are so important in the Hungarian composer’s music. As one audience member put it, “The paprika was missing.”
Notable moments in Monday night’s chamber music in the tent offered the world premiere of a piano quintet by Daniel Kellogg and a performance of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. The quintet veered from dark dissonances in the first two movements to sunnier, brighter music in the last two. Clarinetist Ted Oien and pianist Rita Sloan created the most arresting minutes in the Messiaen in their duet, “The Abyss of the Birds,” but cellist Andrew Shulman and violinist Herb Greenberg had their moments as well as the piece worked its mystical magic.
Flutists proved to be the stars of Saturday afternoon’s chamber music featuring artist faculty: Bonita Boyd’s effusive performance of Poulenc’s flute sonata with Rita Sloan on piano and Nadin Asin’s sinuous and agile work in “L’oiseau des bois,” a short Romantic work with four horns led by Julie Landsman.
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