Aspen (6): Mixed Results from the Emerson Quartet, but Abduraimov Is a Pianist to Reckon With


United StatesUnited States Haydn, Berg, Brahms, Purcell, Berlioz, Beethoven, Bellini, Thomas, Chopin, Schubert, Prokofiev: Soloists, Emerson String Quartet, Behzod Abduraimov (piano), Harris Hall, Aspen, Colorado. 19-21.7.2016. (HS)

Recital, Emerson String Quartet, 19 July, Harris Hall

Haydn: String Quartet in D minor, op. 76 no. 2
Berg: Lyric Suite
Brahms: String Quartet no. 2 in A minor

Shakespeare Songs of Love and Madness, 20 July, Harris Hall
Singers from the Aspen Opera Center, Hung Kuan Chen (piano)

Purcell, Berlioz, Beethoven, Bellini, Thomas

Recital, Behzod Abduraimov, 21 July, Harris Hall
Behzod Abduraimov (piano)

Chopin: Ballade No. 1
Schubert: Moments musiceaux nos. 2 and 3
Beethoven: Piano Sonata no. 23 “Appassionata”
Prokofiev: Piano Sonata no. 6 in A major

Behzod Abduraimov displayed a mastery of tone, technique and a clear idea of how he wants to phrase in a Thursday evening recital in Harris Hall. The 25-year-old brought out power and nuance in Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 6, especially relishing the composer’s rhythmic propulsion. Like a jazz master he got into a energetic pattern that drove the music to a shattering climax.

Abduraimov also has a no-nonsense stage presence. Once at the piano, he went through a Chopin ballade, two of Schubert’s Moments musiceaux and a Beethoven sonata without leaving the stage, as most soloists would.

The Uzbek-born pianist replaced announced Vivaldi and Bach openers with Chopin’s Ballade No. 1. Unfortunately the choice revealed weaknesses, notably an over-reliance on the sustain pedal and a penchant for extreme contrasts in dynamics and tempo. Denser passages got muddy. Inner voices got lost. Chopin’s ballades tell a story through music, but the tale here seemed to stop and start.

However, a jolt of rhythmic energy informed Beethoven’s “Appassionata” Piano Sonata. Although the opening movement lurched a bit, the central slower one moved with gentle urgency under the majestic chorale-like surface, and the finale settled into a dazzling pace that finished with a burst of extra energy.

Except when slowing down for contrast, the pianist favored quick tempos. The slow movements of both the Beethoven and Prokofiev sonatas moved faster than one usually hears. This was especially apparent in the latter, where the “Tempo di valzer lentissimo” clocked about the same metronome reading as Beethoven’s “Andante con moto.” As a result, the Prokofiev came off as especially breathless.

All this originality enlivened the proceedings. This is a pianist who knows where he wants to go.

Though the Emerson String Quartet’s lone concert this year promised to be special—celebrating 40 years as an ensemble—what they provided Tuesday night in Harris Hall was no light-hearted celebration.

The group has a long and distinguished Aspen history, including some of its most rewarding recording projects, and their appearances are often highlights of the season. This time a somber tone emerged from all three pieces, especially the last two, Berg’s Lyric Suite and Brahms’ A minor Quartet. Even Haydn, a composer who can usually be counted on for sprightliness and wit, was represented by his sober side, the Quartet in D minor, op. 76 no. 2.

Violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, violist Lawrence Dutton, and cellist Paul Watkins articulated with their usual precision and uncanny unity. But to these ears it felt routine.

The centerpiece was the Lyric Suite, the title work on their most recent recording. They’ve been playing it on tour in the original version with soprano (in this case Renée Fleming). No doubt the sheer beauty of Fleming’s sound would have reflected more lyrical expressiveness than the instruments-only approach, which brought out the steeliness of the harmonies.

The Haydn, on the other hand, focused on the richness of the chords and downplayed rhythmic elements. In the Brahms quartet they went for autumnal colors and emphasized the composer’s intricate contrapuntal writing. This clarity, however, reduced the plushness of the harmonic textures. A little deeper pile on the sofa would have been welcome. Tellingly, there was no encore.

Wednesday’s evening of music inspired by Shakespeare, also in Harris Hall, continued the week’s sobriety, but did so with more passion and enthusiasm. Accompanied by faculty members Kenneth Merrill and Elizabeth Buccheri, student singers from the Aspen Opera Center delivered a series of strong vocal and dramatic scenes, including La mort de Cléopâtre (a lyric scene by Berlioz), the final death scene from I Capuleti e i Montecchi (from the last act of Bellini’s opera on Romeo and Juliet) and Ophelia’s suicide scene from Ambroise Thomas’s opera, Hamlet.

Things started out brightly enough with three coloratura-filled showpieces from Purcell’s The Fairy Queen, voiced juicily by sopranos Liv Redpath and Isobel Anthony. Mezzo-soprano Sofia Selowski emphasized vocal power in her portrayal of Cleopatra, showing a softer lyric side only after miming being bitten by the asp.

Faculty pianist Hung-Kuan Chen opened the second half with a sensitive account of Beethoven’s “Tempest” Sonata before singers arrived at Bellini’s tomb scene. As Roméo, mezzo-soprano Mesgan Mikailova Samarin delivered the star turn of the night, with soprano Elizabeth Novella complementing her nicely. Soprano Zoe Cristina Bates Johnson finished things off with a fine sense of growing madness in Thomas’s death scene for Ophélia, “A vos jeux, mes amis.”

Harvey Steiman

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