Two not-quite-usual recitals score successes at the Aspen Music Festival

United StatesUnited States Aspen Music Festival [10]: Benedict Music Tent, Aspen, Colorado, 4-5.8.2021. (HS)

Behzod Abduraimov at the Aspen Music Festival (c) Carlin Ma

Program 28: Behzod Abduraimov (piano), 4.8.2021.

Scarlatti – Keyboard Sonata in B minor K.27; Keyboard Sonata in D major K.96
SchumannKreisleriana Op.16
Rachmaninoff – Variations on a Theme of Corelli Op.42 (1931)

Program 29: Sharon Isbin (guitar), 5.8.2021.

Villa-Lobos – selections from 12 Etudes
Brouwer – ‘La espiral eterna’, ‘Canción de cuna’
Tárrega – ‘Capricho árabe’
Lauro – ‘Vals Venezolano’ No.3 ‘Natalia’
Montaña – ‘Porro’ from ‘Suite Colombiana’ No.2
Barrios Mangoré – ‘La catedral’; ‘Julia Florida’; Vals No.3 Op.8 ; Vals No.4 Op.8

On the face of it, you would not expect a program of piano works by Scarlatti, Schumann and Rachmaninoff to be, well, strange. Even if each of the four pieces in Behzod Abduraimov’s piano recital resisted pigeonholing into anything familiar, he executed the music with utmost care and sensitivity Wednesday in the Benedict Music Tent,

The most exotic, and the piece that best fit in Abduraimov’s wheelhouse, was Variations on a Theme of Corelli by Rachmaninoff, whose virtuosity as a pianist earned his reputation. He wrote it in 1931, a full 14 years after he stopped composing original solo piano music. (The only piano pieces that came later were transcriptions of Bach, Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky.)

A listener expecting the full-on Romantic style of the preludes or the piano concertos might be thrown by this work’s detours into offbeat rhythms, pungent harmonies and oddball musical gestures. Abduraimov relished all of it for a remarkable 18 minutes, somehow tying it together with tropes we may recognize from Rachmaninoff’s better-known music.

The theme (not by Arcangelo Corelli but a folk tune Corelli used for his own set of variations) could sound familiar because Liszt used it for his Rhapsodie espagnole. Abduraimov played the simple tune sweetly before diving into Rachmaninoff’s twists, which teemed with increasingly complex pianistic flourishes, tricky rhythms and sudden shifts in pace and volume. It was dynamic stuff.

The recital, barely an hour long, started with two short sonatas by Scarlatti (a favorite gambit of Vladimir Horowitz’s). Though the composer was a contemporary of Bach and Handel, his 500-plus keyboard sonatas feel like they come from a different time. They sidestep contrapuntal complexity in favor of melody with accompaniment, more typical of music from a half century later. They also carry a distinct flavor of Spanish guitar music, which made the Sonata in B minor especially juicy. The Sonata in D major with its hunting-horn harmonies skipped along jauntily under this pianist’s fingers.

At the center of the program was Schumann’s Kreisleriana, a highly experimental work in its day. The title refers to a creepy fictional character in stories by E. T. A. Hoffmann (a writer best known today as the inspiration for Offenbach’s opera The Tales of Hoffmann). It offered an especially clear look at Schumann’s penchant for eccentricity.

Abduraimov grabbed onto the driving rhythms and highly chromatic harmonies and gave it quite a ride, ending with a radiant quotation of a sunny tune (which found its way into the composer’s Spring symphony), fading into a gentle wisp after all that storminess.

Sharon Isbin’s solo recital Thursday had a personal touch. She told a rapt group of concertgoers that it was her first before a live audience since the advent of the pandemic. Her introductions to each piece often included accounts of composers she knew. In finishing the concert with several short pieces by Agustín Pío Barrios Mangoré, she recalled playing his ‘Julia Florida’ for the great Andrés Segovia, who disliked the Paraguayan guitarist and composer of Guaraní origin. ‘It was the last lesson I had with Segovia’, she deadpanned.

That piece highlighted the succession of brief works that made up Isbin’s recital, which ran just over an hour. The many short pieces combined to paint a remarkably full picture of classical guitar music. It spanned the modern guitar era, from the haunting ‘Capricho árabe’ by Francisco Tárrega (who, Isbin suggested, revolutionized writing for guitar in the late nineteenth century) to ‘Porro’, which Gentil Montaña wrote in 2008. The graceful encore, an arrangement of ‘Jerusalem of Gold’ by Naomi Shemer, was even more recent.

Although Isbin generally favored congenial musical styles in this program, she also included the Cuban composer Leo Brouwer’s 1971 ‘La espiral eterna’, which employed a fascinating range of space-age acoustic guitar effects. She opened the evening with three of Villa-Lobos’s 12 Etudes, giving audiences a chance to hear the more advanced writing in pieces other than the often-heard No.1.

What came through most in this recital was Isbin’s personal warmth, especially in flawless playing that invited the ear without coddling it.

Harvey Steiman

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