Aspen I: Cello Sonatas, Crystalline Beethoven, and Lavish Russian Romantics


United StatesUnited States Aspen Music Festival (1): Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Skryabin, Rachmaninov, Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky. Aspen, Colorado. 1-3-5.7.2015 (HS)


Recital, 1 July
David Finckel, cello
Wu Han, piano

J.S. Bach: Cello Sonata No. 1 in G Major, BWV 102
Beethoven: Cello Sonata in C Major, Op. 102, No. 1
Brahms: Cello Sonata No. 1 in E Minor, Op. 38
Skryabin: Cinq Préludes, Op. 16
Rachmaninov: Cello Sonata in G Minor, Op. 19


Aspen Chamber Orchestra, 3 July
Benedict Music Tent
Nicholas McGegan, conductor
Anton Nel, piano

Beethoven: Overture to King Stephen, Op. 117
Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major, Op. 15
 Symphony No. 4 In B-Flat Major, Op. 60


Aspen Festival Orchestra, 5 July
Robert Spano, conductor
David Coucheron, violin
Inon Barnatan, piano

Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade
Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor


On the kickoff weekend for the Aspen Music Festival, hearing familiar music, like the well-loved works of Beethoven, Brahms and Tchaikovsky, allows a listener to focus on the quality of the musicians. For both the Aspen Chamber Symphony, which played on Friday, and the Aspen Festival Orchestra, which played Sunday, the answer is: pretty darn good.

These orchestras formed only early last week; students play alongside principals who spend the rest of the year in major symphony orchestras and chamber groups. And yet evident in both ensembles was a palpable sense of unity, of consciously listening to each other intently, the better to bring more nuance and expression.

On Friday, the Chamber Orchestra focused on Beethoven with extraordinary refinement. Energetic conductor Nicholas McGegan found a balance between precision and warmth in the sunny Symphony No. 4, and pianist Anton Nel’s crystalline and thoughtful work brought the oft-disregarded Piano Concerto No. 1 to vivid life. McGegan established a vigorous but appealingly deft style in the opening King Stephen overture, but everything really came together in the concerto, with soloist and conductor matching each other in buoyancy. The music unfolded like a silk scarf—ebbing, flowing, fluttering, and studded with Nel’s iridescent, jeweled phrases every time the piano entered. The cadenza, the shortest and least flamboyant of Beethoven’s three, sneaks in quietly after the sustained chord in the orchestra. Nel let it grow and spread organically before receding into the final page of the first movement.

The Largo moved with grace and feel of chamber music, and Burt Hara’s quiet clarinet draped a lovely veil over the piano’s wanderings. The finale, almost Haydn-esque in its joyousness, veritably skipped through to its conclusion.

The symphony romped with similar glee. Even the slow introduction avoided too much foreboding before establishing a fleet pace, a true Allegro Vivace, that never waned. The complex filigrees that ornament the rapturous second movement were never over-the-top, and the wit that infuses the third movement minuet arrived with a wink, not a guffaw. The finale made a euphoric finish.

Scheherazade, Rimsky-Korsakov’s colorful treatment of the Arabian classic “A Thousand And One Nights,” opened Sunday’s Festival Orchestra program with wonderfully expansive, controlled playing from all hands. One of the glories was the recurring violin theme associated with the title character. Concertmaster David Coucheron spun the phrases with limpid tone, punctuated by glissandos and chords stunningly articulated by harpist Anneleen Lenaerts, new this year from the Vienna Philharmonic. Rimsky’s kaleidoscopic orchestration brings all the principal players into the spotlight at one time or another. Most memorable were Elaine Douvas’ plaintive oboe, Nadine Asin’s sultry low-range flute and John Zirbel’s high-elevation French horn. Cellist Desmond Hoebig also had a run at the Scheherazade theme, and his filigree also contributed to the ensemble beauty. The entire brass managed to be sonorous and present without a hint of blare, and the percussion seasoned the score without overpowering it, especially the insistent pulse of David Herbert’s tympani.

Pianist Inon Barnatan followed with a dry-eyed yet expressive Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1, among the most popular of piano-and-orchestra works. As fully realized as this performance was, the concerto might have benefited from another rehearsal or two. The broad outlines were there, to be sure, and softer, more lyrical passages were especially fine, especially Barnatan’s caress of the second movement’s tune, first offered by Asin’s flute. But details too often missed, and after pauses or tempo shifts, entrances repeatedly needed an additional measure or two to synchronize. The soloist tended to rush complex passages, and moments of denser texture could have used more clarity. Things fell into place better in the finale, finishing with a welcome rush.

Conductor Robert Spano brought out the music’s shifting colors and pulsings with well-judged intensity, and deft balances throughout. Broad-beamed pieces like this are right in this conductor’s wheelhouse.

To open the season Thursday in the smaller Harris Hall, festival favorites cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han assayed cello sonatas by Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and Rachmaninov. Smart programming mined musical interconnections. In a charming talk to begin the second half, Wu Han noted that the “three B’s” sonatas all consciously take their cues from Bach’s counterpoint, for example. Each one prominently features a fugue.

Finckel displayed his flair for singing melody. A modernistic hollow arc of a bridge on his instrument seemed to underline the sweet lyric-tenor sound of the high range, although the lower reaches took on a gruff quality, especially in rapid passages. He seemed most at home in the romantic Brahms Sonata No.1 in E minor and the more extroverted passages in the long Rachmaninov sonata. Both musicians favored a warm, legato approach to the Bach Sonata No. 1 in G major, which minimized differences between the baroque and romantic styles, almost to a fault.

The pianist preceded the expansive Rachmaninov sonata with a set of five sublime solo preludes by Skryabin, the Russian composer’s contemporary.

Harvey Steiman

Leave a Comment