United States Aspen Music Festival [II]: Aspen, Colorado. 8-11.7.2019 (HS)
8 July, Harris Hall
Alan Fletcher — Three Chorale Preludes for Eight Trombones (world premiere)
John Harbison — Sonata for Viola and Piano (James Dunham, viola; Anton Nel, piano)
Caplet — Conte fantastique (Sivan Magen, harp; Pacifica String Quartet)
9 July, Recital by Kristóf Baráti (violin), Anton Nel (piano), Harris Hall
J.S. Bach — Sonata for solo violin No.1 in G minor
Brahms — Violin Sonata No.2 in A major
Tchaikovsky — Souvenir d’un lieu cher (Souvenir of a Beloved Place)
Ysaÿe — Sonata for solo violin No.3 in D minor (“Ballade”)
Ravel — Tzigane, ‘Rapsodie de concert’
10 July, Brandenburg Recital I, Jory Vinikour (conductor and harpsichord), Harris Hall
J.S. Bach – Brandenburg Concerto No.1 in F major (Elaine Douvas, Robert Nunes, Lucian Avalon, oboes; John Zirbel, Tanner West, French horns; Fabiola Kim, violin); Brandenburg Concerto No.3 in G major; Brandenburg Concerto No.4 in G major (Nadine Asin, Calvin Mayman, flutes; Paul Huang, violin); Concerto for Three Violins in D major (Fabiola Kim, Blake Pouliot, Chad Hoopes, violins)
11 July, Brandenburg Recital II, Jory Vinikour (conductor and harpsichord), Harris Hall
J.S. Bach – Brandenburg Concerto No.5 in D major (Asin, flute; Angelo Xiang Yu, violin); Brandenburg Concerto No.6 in B-flat major (Matthew Lipman, Timothy Ridout, violas); Brandenburg Concerto No.2 in F major (Asin, flute; Douvas, oboe; Tamás Pálfalvi, flugelhorn, Hoopes, violin)
Vivaldi — Concerto for Four Violins in B minor Op.3 No.10 (Hoopes, Yu, Huang, Pouliot, violins)
A varied Harris Hall chamber music program included a world premiere and a spiky sonata for viola and piano in only its fourth performance. The freshest work, Three Chorale Preludes for Eight Trombones, by festival CEO Alan Fletcher, opened with sonorous hymns (actually with 12 trombones, all students conducted by veteran festival trombonist Per Breving). Fletcher’s writing for this instrument employs bass, tenor, and alto trombones to create rich textures, and emphasizes legato over punchy phrases. The result was engaging and sustained its message over 20 minutes.
The first prelude set a pattern — a hymn tune with richly textured polyphonic writing — then stepped up the dissonance in variations or development before returning to a pleasing consonance. The tune is associated with ‘Slane’, an old Irish hymn, and the finale expands upon a hymn written for the U.S. centennial in 1876. But the most moving part was the second chorale. Based on ‘Love Unknown’ by composer John Ireland — used in the Anglican church just before Easter — the rich writing tugged at the heart.
If the preludes called our better angels, Caplet’s Conte Fantastique went for sheer fright. Written in 1908 for harp and string quartet by a friend of (and occasional orchestrator for) Debussy, it sketches the Edgar Allan Poe story The Masque of the Red Death with chilling potency. As played by the Pacifica Quartet and Sivan Magen (principal harpist of the Finnish Radio Symphony), the music took no prisoners and outlined the grisly death of self-satisfied aristocrats with striking vigor.
John Harbison’s Sonata for Viola and Piano got a dedicated reading from James Dunham and Nel. The pair beavered away at the often grating dissonances. It looked like they were having much more fun playing it than we were hearing it.
Violinist Kristóf Baráti, well known in Europe but not in the United States, introduced himself to Aspen audiences with a recital that ranged from the intricate counterpoint of J.S. Bach to the Gypsy-inflected show-off music of Ravel’s Tzigane. He executed all with remarkable tone, articulation and detailed expression. This is a violinist that commands attention for the music without calling too much attention to himself.
Opening with Bach’s Sonata No.1 for solo violin in G minor, the Hungarian-born artist made the counterpoint flow as if there were two violins. Octaves (double-stops) in the Adagio came to life as the top note crescendoed while the bottom note gently faded away. Phrases pulsed within the Allegro’s fugue with a spicy flavor, and the final Presto dazzled with its brilliance.
Ysaÿe’s Sonata for solo violin in D minor (‘Ballade’) is a totally different kind of beast. Composed by the Belgian virtuoso who was the preeminent violinist of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it teems with technical challenges as it unfolds like a well-told story, starting slowly and ending on an appropriate direction ‘with bravura’.
With Anton Nel, who seems to be everyone’s favorite piano collaborator at the moment, Baráti went for sinuous execution in Brahms’s Violin Sonata No.2 in A major, and they found a sense of elation and spirited expression in Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir of a Beloved Place, which stemmed from the composer’s discarded try at a slow movement for his violin concerto.
As if the bond here was not already palpable, the unanimity of wit and purpose in Ravel’s Tzigane was unmistakable, almost euphoric in its ‘anything you can play I can outdo’ spirit. The encore, the opening movement of Beethoven’s ‘Spring’ sonata, sealed the deal. This pairing put its efforts into making the score unfurl as it should.
Then in Harris Hall a journey through Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos had its high points, but started off shakily, and a misguided change of instrumentation waylaid No.2.
No.1, with a solo violin and an oboe-and-horn quintet out front, trundled off heavy-footedly and never quite achieved lift or sprightliness, not even in the dancelike finale. Elaine Douvas contributed a lissome solo in the Adagio, and John Zirbel enunciated high-lying French horn lines with his usual aplomb. But they could not overcome stodgy tempos and mostly lifeless phrasing from the ensemble.
Jory Vinokour, conducting from the harpsichord, replaced the usually vigorous Nicholas McGegan, originally slated to run this show, but who stepped aside this week to undergo a long-needed hip replacement. Vinokour, a brilliant harpsichordist, made a delicious moment of the instrument’s extended cadenza in No.5, but some of the conducting choices left this listener puzzled.
The biggest question mark was why Tamás Pálfavi was allowed to play the trumpet part in No.2 on a flugelhorn fitted with a trumpet mouthpiece. He played it flawlessly, of course. But Bach’s orchestrations for these concertos are landmarks of instrumental balance and color, and he called for a tiny piccolo trumpet, which has the brilliance and the range to match the other soloists in from the ensemble — violin (Chad Hoopes), oboe (Douvas), and flute (Nadine Asin). The mellow, café au lait tone of the flugelhorn stuck out egregiously, and deprived us of the piccolo trumpet’s brilliant high notes — catnip for a virtuoso in Pálfavi’s class.
The best performances involved nothing but strings and harpsichord. No.3 achieved a lightness of tone and freshness of pace that was missing in No.1 (which preceded it). And No.6 showed a spotlight on violists Matthew Lipman and Timothy Ridout, who supplied the flair and energy to bring the cello, bass and harpsichord along for the lively ride.
With No.4, Nadine Asin and Calvin Mayman floated graceful flute lines over the gently pulsing ensemble and Paul Huang supplied eye-opening violin filigrees. And in No.5, Asin and violinist Angelo Xiang Yu created a soft-hued, amiable mood to set the tone.
Both programs finished with unrelated multiple-violin concertos. Fabiola Kim and Blake Pouliot competed for attention as soloists in Bach’s Concerto for Three Violins in D major and Pouliot, Huang, Yu, and Hoopes vied for supremacy in Vivaldi’s Concerto for Four Violins in B minor, which turned into a rhythmic romp reminiscent of a mini-Four Seasons.