Schubert, More Schubert and a Baroque Evening

United StatesUnited States Aspen Music Festival (6): Emerson String Quartet, Marc-André Hamelin (piano), Nicholas McGegan (conductor and harpsichord), Harris Concert Hall, Aspen, CO. 15-17.7.2014 (HS)

Emerson String Quartet, July 15
Harris Concert Hall
Eugene Drucker, violin
Philip Setzer, violin
Lawrence Dutton, viola
Paul Watkins, cello
Beethoven: String Quartet in C-sharp minor, Op. 131
Schubert: String Quartet in D minor “Death and the Maiden”


Recital, July 16
Harris Concert Hall
Marc-André Hamelin, piano
Field: Andante inédit in E-flat major
Schubert: Piano Sonata in A major
Liszt: No. 6 in A minor from Soirées de Vienna
Schubert: Piano Sonata in B-flat major


Baroque Evening, July 17
Harris Concert Hall
Nicholas McGegan, conductor and harpsichord
Nadine Asin, flute
Elaine Douvas, oboe
Per Hannevold, bassoon
Kevin Cobb, trumpet
Nakao Tanaka, violin
Fabiola Kim, violin
Edson Scheid, violin
C. P. E. Bach: String Symphony in E major
Telemann: Suite in A minor, TWV 55:a2
Biscogli: Concerto for Oboe, Bassoon and Trumpet in D major
J. S. Bach: Concerto for Three Violins in D major


This season’s emphasis on Romantic composers, both recent and past, gave a node to the 19th century this week in two recitals in Harris Hall. Pianist Marc-André Hamelin and the Emerson Quartet both focused squarely on Schubert, with nothing on either menu later than Liszt.

Hamelin’s moody and utterly captivating traversal of the Schubert Piano Sonata in B-flat major was the highlight of a program that also paired the composer’s much lighter A Major Piano Sonata with a charming Schubert homage from Liszt.

There were moments in this program where that bravado that comes from formidable technique was called for, and Hamelin delivered. But mostly he put the emphasis on the music instead of the pianist, as in a crystalline, almost self-effacing performance of the A Major Sonata. But when he turned to Liszt, No. 6 of a series of nine pieces written to evoke Schubert’s improvisations in Vienna, he reveled in Liszt’s trademark dynamic pianism.

In the tranquil opening pages of the B-flat Sonata, soft chords sing a gentle song interrupted by quiet rumbling trills in the lowest end of the piano’s range. With slight hesitations and ever-so-softly executed low trills, Hamelin made it feel as if he were Schubert himself composing right before our ears, inviting us into his world. That sense of freshness and urgency hung like a glow throughout the leisurely paced first two movements. The short, quick Scherzo that followed popped with vitality and yet maintained the required delicacy. In the finale, with its cheerful main theme interrupted by stormier passages, he finally let out all the pent-up energy in a brilliant coda. The encore, a Schubert Impromptu, was absolutely appropriate, and played with the requisite élan.

Beethoven broke the mold for the genre when he wrote his String Quartet in C-sharp minor, Op. 131. Jettisoning the standard four-movement format, he folded together a series of short musical essays that culminate in a final movement of extraordinary depth and quiet power. Listening to it is like reading poetry and being mesmerized by how the poet has put spun things out with such artistry. With every turn of the page, however, listeners slide into an alternate universe. Not until the end does it all come together.

In their performance on Tuesday, the Emerson Quartet articulated each phrase with care and the sort of unanimity that comes from decades of playing together. (Even cellist Paul Watkins, who replaced David Finckel in the group last year, was totally on the same page.) As cleanly executed as these short sections were, they had a practiced, calculated air. The score came through so clearly you could practically see the notes on the page. What was missing was freshness. I had the sense that everyone knew what was coming next, dulling Beethoven’s surprises.

Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” Quartet came together with more animation, a rhythmic vitality propelling the momentum as Schubert’s phrases accumulated power. The finale, taken at top speed, finished with a captivating breathlessness, and it drew the standing ovation that the Beethoven did not.

On Wednesday, conductor and harpsichordist Nicholas McGegan’s Baroque Evening gave a break from the prevailing 18th-century vibe, offering a mix of the offbeat from J.S. Bach, C.P.E. Bach, Telemann and the super-obscure Francesco Biscogli. Although the quality of the compositions varied, the level of playing was high, especially among the featured faculty soloists.

Flutist Nadine Asin showed formidable Baroque virtuosity in Telemann’s Suite in A Minor, notably the eight- and sixteenth-notes zipping by vigorously and accurately in the rapid-fire réjouissance. In an otherwise unremarkable Biscogli concerto, Elaine Douvas contributed florid oboe playing; bassoonist Per Hannevold gave broad, rich sound on bassoon; and Kevin Cobb conjured up a lovely limpid, sinuous sound on piccolo trumpet. Finally, in J.S. Bach’s concerto for three violins, Nakao Tanaka, Fabiola Kim and Edson Scheid rode the crests of continuous and ever more complex upwellings for an invigorating finale.

Harvey Steiman

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