Beethoven, With Finesse, Tops Festival Weekend

United StatesUnited States Aspen Music Festival (11): Emerson String Quartet, Jamie Barton (mezzo soprano), Sarah Chang (violin), Stefan Jackiw (violin), Narek Hakhnazaryan (cello), Inon Barnatan (piano), James Feddeck (conductor), David Robertson (conductor). 13.8-9-10.2013 (HS)

Emerson String Quartet, 8 August
Philip Setzer, violin
Eugene Drucker, violin
Lawrence Dutton, viola
Paul Watkin, cello
Haydn: String Quartet in G minor, Op. 20 No. 3
Britten: String Quartet No. 3
Beethoven: String Quartet in F Major, Op. 59 No. 1 “Razumovsky”

Aspen Chamber Orchestra, 9 August
James Feddeck, conductor
Jamie Barton, mezzo soprano
Sarah Chang, violin
Elgar: Sea Pictures
Barber: Violin Concerto
Schumann: Symphony No. 3 “Rhenish”

Aspen Festival Orchestra, 10 August
David Robertson, conductor
Stefan Jackiw, violin
Narek Hakhnazaryan, cello
Inon Barnatan, piano
Beethoven: Triple Concerto
Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring

The Beethoven Triple Concerto usually serves as a vehicle for big stars who can’t wait to show off in front of an orchestra and an audience. But violinist Stefan Jackiw, cellist Narek Hakhnazaryan and pianist Inon Barnatan had other ideas. Aided and abetted by the subtle conducting of David Robertson, they played the music with consummate delicacy to open Sunday’s Aspen Festival Orchestra concert.

This was a total concerto performance of extraordinarily rewarding depth and distinction, the sort of music-making that makes an audience hold its breath for fear of missing any nuances.

The concerto hinges on the cello, which must execute by far the most difficult music. It also is the glue that holds the trio of soloists together. Hakhnazaryan (winner of the 2011 Tchaikovsky competition), in a stunning Aspen debut, unfurled his lines with grace and clarity, supple in tone, eloquently phrased. With silvery sound and understated playing, Jackiw seemed focused on meshing his phrasing with the cello and piano, with no grandstanding, and for that he shone all the more. Barnatan took a similar approach with the less demanding piano part.

The challenge for the soloists is to create enough difference in their moments in the spotlight without losing the sense that they’re playing the same piece. These three won the day by listening so intently to each other that they seemed to be finishing each other’s phrases with a personal twist.

Finesse is hardly the point in Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, which occupied the second half of the program. Cleanly articulating Stravinsky’s amazing piece (celebrating its 100th anniversary this year) still produced an exciting response, even it didn’t quite create the sense of raw abandon found in the best performances.

Stravinsky voiced the famous opening bassoon solo at the very top of the instrument’s range so the strain would come off as effortful and wild, but Per Hannevold made it sound too nice—an impressive accomplishment, but it was like starting Rhapsody in Blue with a clarinet glissando that didn’t sound jazzy.

After that, Robertson took his best shots to energize the orchestra, jumping—practically dancing the music on the podium—and stabbing his baton for emphasis. He got an admirable performance, rhythmically solid, colorful and often beautiful. And it sent the audience home happy.

Conducting was a strength in Friday’s Aspen Chamber Orchestra concert, too. James Feddeck led a beautifully proportioned Schumann “Rhenish” Symphony —at times vividly picturesque, at others reverent. The fourth-movement polyphony in the trombones was especially well done, and sonorous brass chorales put the cap on a spirited, nicely rhythmic finale.

The contrast between the two soloists in the first half, however, could not have been more plain.

Mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton brought richness of sound, immediacy of communication and selfless focus on the music to Elgar’s Sea Pictures, one of the pieces that won her both top prizes at the Cardiff Singer of the World this year. Barton’s singing matched Elgar’s stirring score, the long arcs of melody finding similar generosity in her voice. Feddeck kept in bounds what could have been overly voluptuous music, and it all bloomed beautifully.

Violinist Sarah Chang followed with an extended repertoire of physical quirks, flourishes and gestures that competed with the simplicity and directness of Barber’s Violin Concerto. All that leaning back to emphasize a sustained note and those Zorro-like swishings of the bow at the close of phrases were distracting. There were some nice moments in the opening movement when she pulled away from heavy vibrato and dark tone. Hushed sections playing against oboist-of-the-week Robert Atherholt’s solos in the Andante provided a pleasant respite, but Chang’s sawing away in the perpetual-motion finale left no room for deftness and sprightliness.

Finally, in its recital Thursday in Harris Hall, the Emerson String Quartet introduced their newest addition to Aspen, cellist Paul Watkin, who replaced David Finckel this year. He brings a difference in tone and personality, but the group’s signature clarity, pinpoint intonation and articulation still comes as close to perfection as anyone’s. They sailed through quartets by Haydn, Britten and Beethoven.

Finckel always appeared unperturbed by technical challenges or working to achieve that delicate meshing of voices that makes for superb chamber music. The new guy is not so serene. Clearly the most animated of the group, he taps his feet rhythmically and his eyes dart to follow whoever has the melody at a given moment, and his face beams with joy when it all it comes together.

This seems to have given the other three a mild jolt. Violinists Eugene Druckman and Philip Setzer still gaze at their parts with dour intensity. Violist Lawrence Dutton, his playing position facing Watkins, seems to delight at the cellist’s enthusiasm. It’s quite a show to watch as the music unfolds.

The difference musically is subtle. With a characteristic buzz to Watkins’s deeper sound, his cello is like a tenor with a baritonal quality vs. Finckel’s lyric silkiness. If that nudges the quartet’s timbre in a slightly different direction, the preternatural internal communication is still there.

That was most obvious in the Britten String Quartet No. 3. The first movement, a series of duets and conversations in which two players at a time take the lead, emerged seamlessly. There was sheer beauty in Philip Setzer’s violin solo in the third movement, delicately framed by the weavings of the other three, and the soft focus as the passacaglia finale dissolved into thin air. The coherence and sense of story telling was much better in this than in the opening Haydn String Quartet in G minor, Op. 20 No. 3, which, though accurately played, never quite lifted off.

In Beethoven’s String Quartet in F Major, Op. 59 No. 1, “Razumovsky,” the epic first movement ebbed and flowed with wonderful unanimity, the instruments matching sounds without losing their individuality, the familiar music taking on a welcome improvisational quality. Some ensembles aim to mine more drama from this score, but this performance was about discovering how it all fit together. The other three movements followed like chapters in a book, finishing with a rollicking finale.

As an encore, the rapid-fire finale from the third of Beethoven’s “Razumovsky” quartets, in which the individual members of the quartet play hot potato with a rhythmic motto, got a breathtaking turn.

Harvey Steiman