Aspen Music Festival 2011: Shaham, Feltsman, Hamelin and LaBelle plus Others Who Cannot Be Named

Aspen Music Festival (2) : Gil Shaham (violin), Vladimir Feltsman (piano), Marc-André Hamelin (piano), Dominique LaBelle (soprano), Anonymous 4. Harris Hall, Benedict Music Tent, 5-7.7.2011 (HS)

Soprano Dominique LaBelle, violinist Gil Shaham and pianist Marc-André Hamelin made the biggest impressions as soloists in a busy and, for the most part, artistically successful midweek at the Aspen Music Festival. It was also a good week for English conductors here, namely Nicolas McGegan and Christopher Seaman.

LaBelle was first in chronological order, providing the star fireworks in an entertaining evening of Baroque music Tuesday in Harris Hall. McGegan, born in Hertfordshire, drew vivid playing from an all-student string ensemble plus a few wind players and soloists from the Music Festival’s school faculty in music by Vivaldi, Telemann, Handel, Rameau and Graun. But it was LaBelle’s heart-rending offering of “Piangero,” from Handel’s opera Giulio Cesare, and jaw-dropping execution of Baroque coloratura in Handel’s “Gloria,” an early composition only recently discovered.

LaBelle’s clear soprano has a transparency to the sound that lets the rapid-fire passages flow and allows her to color every word, every phrase with subtlety – the better to bring human emotion to the music. Sometimes that emotion was pity, as in “Piangero,” at other times humor, as in “The Prince, unable to conceal his pain,” from Handel’s Alexander’s Feast, which describes the inebriated title character going ga-ga in public over a beauty.

Among a number of instrumental soloists who distinguished themselves in this music, hornists John Zirbel and Michael Oswald dazzled the most in a Telemann concerto for two horns.

Shaham was magnificent in the Walton Violin Concerto Wednesday in the Benedict Music Tent, the first of his four major concerto assignments in the next two weeks. With Seaman (born in Faversham, now conductor of the Rochester Philharmonic) on the podium, the all-student Concert Orchestra gave a powerful and, yes, idiomatic account of the score. Shaham was on point for virtually every measure, with uncanny accuracy on the highest phrases and a richness to the singing low passages. The look of delight on his face as the orchestra played was priceless. The connection was palpable.

Seaman opened the second half with Elgar’s lavish orchestral treatment of Bach’s Fantasia and Fugue in C Minor , the sort of thing that has fallen out of favor these days. In this case, it was more Elgar than Bach, rather like hearing a drum and bugle corps play Mozart, where the notes may be familiar but the sound doesn’t seem right. Much better was a strong, swaggering account of Strauss’ tone poem,Don Juan, with excellent solo work throughout the orchestra.

In his sparsely attended solo recital in the tent Thursday, Hamelin triumphed over two of the toughest pieces in the piano literature. He brought crystalline accuracy and seamless phrasing even in the fastest passages to Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit , making the piano surge, shrug, dance and dart like something alive and throbbing. The opening movement,Ondine , shimmered and splashed, the second movement, Le Gibet , created a model of quiet, sustained tension, and the finale,Scarbo , lunged and twisted with panache. Something similar happened in Liszt’s titanic Piano Sonata in B minor, with Hamelin creating one compelling moment after another, and investing the single movement in a sweep that took it from the hesitant opening scales to several thrilling climaxes, the final page a hushed coda of simple grace.

This was breathtaking pianism, as were the opening pieces, Berg’s Piano Sonata Op. 1 , and Stockhausen’s Klavierstücke No. 9 . The composer’s names no doubt scared off some of the potential audience, but the Berg was gorgeous in the composer’s pre-atonal hyper-Romantic mode and the Stockhausen had its moments of pianistic beauty.

Vladimir Feltsman, long a festival favorite, played an all-Schumann program Wednesday evening to a capacity audience in the 500-seat Harris Hall. His playing in this repertoire was more assured than what we heard in his misbegotten Rachmaninoff last Friday. But it still felt overly muscular and heavy, even in the relative delicacy of  the Arabesque in C major,  from which he segued into a Kreisleriana that became increasingly indulgent as one thundering climax piled onto another. The lesser known Carnaval, scènes mignonnes sur quatre notes , suffered a similar fate. Feltsman clearly needs to put his own stamp on the music, or bust.

The à cappella female vocal group Anonymous 4 provided something of a palate cleanser in the final Harris Hall concert Thursday evening. Their purity of sound, clarity with the words and gentle touch with a musical line perfectly suited the music of the convent of Las Huelgas, motets and polyphony which date from the early 14th century. It was easy to slip into their musical world, far from the complexity and muscle of much Western music, exerting a power of its own. The second half, a collection of mostly 19th-century American hymns and other songs of a religious bent, fit less comfortably. With the exception of gorgeous renditions of “Shall We Gather at the River” and “Angel Band,” much of the music felt too reticent. That haunting sound, however, resonates in the mind hours later.

Harvey Steiman