Aspen III: Kick-starting Mahler and a Luminous Verklärte Nacht

United StatesUnited States Aspen Music Festival (3): Feltsman wrestles with Beethoven’s “Emperor” and Glover mesmerizes with Mozart; a luminous Verklärte Nacht; Daniel Hope tackles Prokofiev, Søndergård kick-starts Mahler 1. 9.7.2012 (HS)

The high-profile Aspen Music Festival concerts Friday and Sunday proved that it’s not necessary for things to be absolutely perfect for the results to be rewarding. Some details may have slipped, but both concerts ended well. Even a 10-minute interruption that cleared the tent when a fire alarm went off in the middle of the second-movement scherzo of Sunday’s Mahler Symphony No. 1 could not dampen the sheer scale of the music.

Violinist Daniel Hope struggled to articulate the complex solo line in sync with the Festival Orchestra opener Sunday, Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2, but he hit the high points and finished strong. Then conductor Thomas Søndergård rushed through the first two movements of the Mahler as if he were late for dinner, and it seemed as if the horns could not get through one of the many highlighted ensembles without bobbling notes.

Make no mistake, there were plenty of fine solo contributions, notably from principal bass Bruce Bansby, who laid the foundation of the second movement with the minor-key “Frères Jacque” tune. Principal clarinet Joaquin Valdpeñas seemed to channel a Klezmer virtuoso in the third movement, and yes, principal horn John Zirbel executed the solos with flair and accuracy. Trumpets, trombones and tuba made this symphony’s fanfares thrilling.

Søndergård, unfortunately, led the first two movements faster than I have ever heard them. One of Mahler’s tempo markings in the first movement is schleppend, which means “dragging.” It never did, and as a result, Mahler’s mysterious sound world sounded matter-of-fact. Each section of the orchestra seemed to have a slightly different idea about attack and pace. Same thing happened (both times) in the second movement, where Mahler’s tempo marking for the peasant dance music is translated as “with powerful movement, but not too fast.”

The tempo finally fell into place with the third movement’s funeral march, and so did the cohesion within the orchestra. And from the opening roar of the finale, everything felt fine and momentum never ebbed. So, the down sides ended up being minor. Mahler, and the orchestra, triumphed.

In Friday’s Chamber Symphony in the tent, pianist Vladimir Feltsman and conductor Jane Glover seemed to be on the same page as far as tempo in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5(“Emperor”), but Feltsman seemed to go out of his way to shape every phrase differently from the orchestra’s version when they played it the first time through. His approach was full of unexpected and quixotic hesitations and occasional rushing. Inexorable forward progress usually is the goal in Beethoven, not rubato. On the other hand, he delivered a beautifully hushed slow movement and marshaled impressive climaxes, including a grand flourish at the very end that brought the inevitable standing ovation.

You never know what you’re going to get in a Feltsman appearance. In recent years we’ve heard the pianist play Schubert with lapidary simplicity (good) and Bach with a heavy hand (not). Last year’s performance of the Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No. 2 was a tug-of-war with conductor Robert Spano over tempo. Though the pianist can be willful, he always brings his formidable technique and intelligence to bear on the music in ways that we probably have not heard before. That can be exciting—or frustrating. Friday night’s performance was both.

Glover coaxed an energetic, robust performance from the orchestra, even if the French horns blared a little too much in some of the climaxes of the Beethoven. Her approach to the Mozart Symphony No. 27, which opened the program, and Symphony No. 39, which closed it, drew graceful, idiomatic and lively playing. A steady rain drumming on the tent roof competed with Britten’s folk song suite, “A Time There Was …” What we could hear of it seemed lovely, the composer’s glosses bringing unexpected depth to the tunes.

The highlight of Saturday afternoon’s chamber music program in Harris Hall was Schoenberg’s early, heart-on-sleeve and fully tonal sextet Verklärte Nacht. It lacked nothing in expressiveness without devolving into too much schmaltz. Violinists Paul Kantor and Cornelia Heard, violists James Dunham and Espen Lilleslåtten and cellists Desmond Hoebig and Darrett Adkins played with welcome unanimity, precision and restraint. It may have been the most thoroughly realized performance of the weekend.

Harvey Steiman