Aspen Music Festival (3): Mostly Violin and Piano, in a Week of Lots of Brahms


United StatesUnited States Aspen Music Festival [3] – Chausson, Smetana, Schubert, Fauré, Brahms, Barber, Saint-Saëns, Leclair, J.S. Bach, Handel, Purcell: Soloists, Nicolas McGegan (conductor), Benedict Music Tent and Harris Hall, Aspen, CO. 10-13.7.2017. (HS)

Chamber Music, Benedict Music Tent, 10 July
Faculty and guest artists

Chausson — Piano Quartet in A major Op.30 [Naoko Tanaka (violin), Victoria Chang (viola), Michael Mermagen (cello), Conrad Tao (piano)]
Smetana — Piano Trio in G minor Op.15 [Alexander Kerr (violin), Desmond Hoebig (cello), Anton Nel (piano)]
Schubert — Rondo in A major, D. 951, op. 107 [Arie Vardi, Yefim Bronfman (piano)]

Piano Duo Recital, Harris Hall, 11 July
Anna Polonsky, Orion Weiss (piano)

Fauré — Dolly, Op. 56, No. 1
Brahms — Variations on a Theme by Schumann, Op. 23
Barber — Souvenirs, Op. 28
Saint-Saëns — Variations on a Theme of Beethoven in E-flat major, Op. 35

Recital, Harris Hall, 12 July
Stefan Jackiw (violin), Anna Polonsky (piano)

Brahms — Violin Sonata No.2 in A major Op.100; No.3 in D minor Op.108; No.1 in G major Op.78

A Baroque Evening, Harris Hall, 13 July
Faculty and student artists, Nicolas McGegan (conductor)

Leclair — Suite from Scylla et Glaucus Op.11
J. S. Bach — Violin Concerto in A minor, BWV 1041 [William Hagen (violin)
J. S. Bach — Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D major [Alexander Kerr (violin), Nadine Asin (flute), Anton Nel (piano)]
Handel — From Water Music Suite in G Major HWV 350
Purcell — Suite from The Fairy Queen

From Sunday to Wednesday, Brahms was the center of attention in the Aspen Music Festival’s prime-time concerts. Thursday, however, the spotlight moved to Bach and his contemporaries, delivering a welcome change of pace in the hands of conductor Nicolas McGegan.

Not that there’s anything wrong with Brahms, of course, but Bach’s Fifth Brandenburg Concerto, featuring three of the festival’s A-list regulars, was doubly infectious. Well known for his period-instrument Philharmonia Baroque, McGegan proved adept at catching the spirit of the era – even on modern instruments with an all-student orchestra.

Alexander Kerr (violin) and Nadine Asin (flute) brought fluidity, precision and flair to their work in the concerto, but it was Anton Nel who dazzled most. Playing the extensive keyboard part on piano (it’s usually heard on harpsichord) made sense with all the other modern instruments on the stage, and created a richer texture than the harpsichord’s jangling skeleton sound. Nel made the rapid-fire runs, twists, and turns fly with the breeze, almost nonchalantly bringing to life pages dark with 32nd-notes, both as accompaniment and into the extensive first-movement cadenza. The slow movement unfolded with unity of purpose, and the finale danced with a sense of joy.

William Hagen (violin), a veteran of many summers as a student in Aspen, lavished a minimum of vibrato to create a lean Baroque-like sound and a sprightly sense of rhythm to Bach’s Violin Concerto in A minor. McGegan and the ensemble were especially sparkly in the two final pieces, a short selection from Handel’s Water Music and a colorful dip into a suite from Purcell’s Faerie Queen.

Playing the three Brahms violin sonatas Wednesday evening, Stefan Jackiw’s sweet violin sound combined with the soft-edged playing of pianist Anna Polonsky to make music that felt like a gauzy dream, perfect for a drawing room but perhaps less communicative to a rapt audience in 600-seat Harris Hall. The sonatas are full of singing passages for the violin, many of them quiet.

Despite this instinct for musical intimacy, quieter moments in the first half (Sonatas 2 and 3) often seemed tentative and breathy rather than silky. Broader phrases, with more intensity, came off better. Jackiw played the more extroverted First Sonata with more assurance. Encores of miniatures by both Clara and Robert Schumann brought the evening to a quiet conclusion.

In Tuesday’s piano duo recital, Polonsky and her husband, Orion Weiss, dispatched Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Schumann with grace, their four hands on the same piano. But the highlights of the program were two lighter-weight pieces: Fauré’s charming Dolly suite and Barber’s Souvenirs.

Though written over the years as birthday gifts for the daughter of a singer with whom the composer had a long-running affair, Dolly reflects a winning innocence, which the pianists captured neatly. Souvenirs, a collection of six pastiches of dance music, glistened with wit, especially in the mock-serious Hesitation-Tango. Its nimbleness made Saint-Saëns’ two-piano Variations on a Theme of Beethoven, the most technically challenging work on the program, seem like a show-off – technique over substance.

Four redoubtable pianists anchored Monday’s chamber music program, bringing weight and color to three less-often-heard Romantic-era pieces in the vast spaces of the Benedict Music Tent (where passing rainstorms drummed on the tent roof before finally drenching the departing audience on their way out). The music highlighted three quite different pianistic styles.

Conrado Tao’s fluidity of attack and astonishing range of colors brought extra depth to Chausson’s Piano Quartet in A major, the string parts more conventionally fashioned by Naoko Tanaka (violin), Victoria Chiang (viola) and Michael Mermagen (cello). In Smetana’s emotionally wrought Piano Trio in G minor, Nel’s suppleness of tone complemented longtime faculty partners Kerr (violin) and Desmond Hoebig (cello), impressive for their communication and unity. And in a charmingly lightweight finale, longtime Israeli friends Arie Vardi and Yefim Bronfman shared a single piano in Schubert’s gentle Rondo in A major, all crystalline and pure.

Harvey Steiman

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