Aspen IV: The Emerson’s, Hamelin and Weirdly Fascinating Crumb

United StatesUnited States  Aspen Music Festival (4): Emerson Quartet wields powerful Shostakovich; Hamelin hammers and caresses the piano; Hope and Kahane mesh smoothly especially in Walton and Schulhoff; and a strange and wonderful program of Crumb and Mendelssohn. 10-12.7.2012 (HS)

Time was, modern music would scare off half the Aspen Music Festival’s audience. To the festival’s credit, thornier 20th-century and contemporary music remained on the program, even if much of it came with an undertone of “good medicine,” rather than “rewarding to hear.”

To win over even an open-minded audience with unfamiliar music, musicians must wholeheartedly commit to it, to believe in it so deeply that it can’t help but communicate. Indeed, that happened in a series of concerts this week with works of unusual form, quirky musical utterance, and yes, dissonance. The message clearly got through and audiences responded with enthusiasm.

The musicians who played George Crumb’s weirdly fascinating Music for a Summer Evening had to appreciate the standing ovation from an audience ready to lap up Mendelssohn next on Monday’s chamber music program. Enthusiasm also greeted violinist Daniel Hope and pianist Jeffrey Kahane’s assays of somewhat spiky Walton and Schulhoff sonatas Tuesday, and on Wednesday, pianist Marc-André Hamelin’s assault on the piano in Villa-Lobos’s Rudepoema. In each case, not only was the music executed with impressive precision but the emotions came through, because the players believed in the music.

Oddly, the Emerson Quartet’s traversal of Thomas Adès’s 2010 work The Four Quarters was an exception Thursday in a sold-out Harris Hall for the group’s sole concert in Aspen this year. Unfortunately, their struggle to execute Adès’s tricky rhythms and challenging sound textures subtracted from the overall effect (and they debuted the piece in 2011).

This wonderful work only sporadically came together. The lovely, painterly gestures got jumbled—the quick trading-off of high harmonics in the opening “Nightfalls,” the complex rhythms of the rapid pizzicatos in the next, “Morning Dew.” But when the music reached the long build to climaxes in the third movement, “Days” and the finale, “The 25th Hour,” and in the quiet subsidence into soft, plush chords at the very end, it was breathtaking.

In contrast, the Shostakovich String Quartet No. 8, played after intermission, stunned with its virtuosity and power. Shostakovich’s music has seeped into their bones in their years of playing it, and violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer—and especially violist Lawrence Dutton and cellist David Finckel—tore into it fearlessly. Here was the level of commitment and ease in execution that made the music come to life, so full of specifics, depth and overall thrust.

For an encore the quartet gave us a richly detailed, soulful and mesmerizing slow movement of Beethoven’s final Op. 135 quartet. It was a final chance to savor Finckel’s way of gently but firmly weaving his bass into the seamless textures that this group can achieve. This encore was a fine way to mark his last appearance with the Emerson in Aspen.

Hamelin displayed fierce intelligence and staggering technique in a daunting recital Wednesday that ranged from delicacy of miniatures by Fauré and Rachmaninov to the savage assaults of the Villa-Lobos. The highlight was the pianist’s own Variations on a Theme of Paganini, full of witty turns, some naughty, many dissonant, always pianistically ebullient, on the same violin tune Rachmaninov used for his famous rhapsody. How appropriate to follow it with some actual Rachmaninov—two preludes and the majestic Sonata No. 2. His playing gave phrases shape, detail and color, whether quiet or blazingly loud.

After Busoni’s elaborate arrangement of Bach’s organ Fugue in G minor “The Great” used the grand piano to achieve organ-like sonorities amid cascades of counterpoint, Hamelin followed with two lovely short Fauré miniatures before launching into the jaw-dropping Villa-Lobos. The piano had to be retuned at intermission, but the audience was grinning at the thrill of it all. For a calming encore, he turned to “Bruyères” from Debussy’s Preludes Book 2.

Crumb’s Music for a Summer Evening and the Mendelssohn Cello Sonata No. 2 have virtually zero in common. They simply create their own separate worlds and invite us to explore them. Some in the Monday audience may have come for the percussive quirkiness and dissonance of the Crumb, others for the joyful nineteenth-century tunefulness of the Mendelssohn, but, impressively, they stayed for both. It was an extraordinary concert.

Pianists Wu Han and Rita Sloan joined forces with percussionists Jonathan Haas and Vonder Heide for a thoroughly engrossing traversal of Crumb’s five-part exploration of night music. Crumb generally uses percussion delicately, although there are crashing moments as well. The quartet captured the varied, colorful and musically arresting details of the 40-minute piece vividly. Cellist Eric Kim and pianist Anton Nel, longtime friends and collaborators at Aspen, relished the wit in the pizzicato scherzo of the sonata, the gorgeous arioso of the slow movement and the fast-break give-and-take of the exuberant finale.

In Tuesday’s recital, violinist Hope played four sonatas with pianist Kahane, his regular recital collaborator, in better form than his Prokofiev concerto showed on Sunday. They produced juicy and emotionally affecting moments in Schulhoff’s Violin Sonata No. 2 and a kinky and thoroughly engrossing reading of the Walton Violin Sonata. They finished with a rapid-fire Mendelssohn Violin Sonata in F Major. The encore, a heartfelt Kaddish by Ravel, made up for a minimally defined Ravel Sonata, which opened the program.

Harvey Steiman