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Review: Shaham, Yang and Takács best of a strong Aspen music weekend

Gil Shaham
The Aspen Times

By Harvey Steiman

ASPEN — It was a good weekend for soloists and chamber music at the Aspen Music Festival, with superb playing by violinist Gil Shaham on Friday, pianist Joyce Yang on Sunday, and some outstanding string, piano and clarinet work in two chamber music concerts Saturday.

With the Festival Orchestra Sunday in the tent, Yang provided a beautifully natural, pure performance of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3, notable for its clarity and restraint. Rhythmically solid, showing remarkable control, she had the confidence to let the music be what it is without pushing or pulling on it. Conductor Jaap van Zweden (currently leading the Dallas Symphony) showed similar discretion, letting Beethoven's music flow easily. It made for a completely satisfying performance.

The second half turned to Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 2, a high-calorie, triple-scoop sundae with fudge and whipped cream. What it lacks in profundity it makes up for with opulent harmonies, soaring melodies and shattering climaxes. It would be easy to let it overflow its banks, but Van Zweden, a physically active conductor who favors big gestures, kept the outsized orchestra just this side of indulgent. He got a muscular performance and moved tempos briskly so it never drooped.

Excellent playing from all quarters included a rock-solid foundation for those towering orchestral voicings from Aaron Tindall on tuba, busier in this piece than any half dozen others. A soulful clarinet solo by Joaquin Valdepeñas was another highlight.

Valdepeñas joined with pianist Anton Nel in Saturday afternoon's faculty chamber music for a whirl through Weber's Grand duo concertant, a showpiece for both instruments. In a fearless performance, they made the music take flight, uncannily together for every note and each nuance in dynamics. That followed a rousing reading of Chausson's Concert in D Major, featuring Cho-Liang Lin on violin and Marc-André Hamelin on piano, both in fine form, with a string quartet of faculty stalwarts.

The fine chamber music continued with an elegantly played recital in Harris Hall by the Takács Quartet. Their approach to Mozart's String Quartet in D major, K. 575, was notable for its grace, Bartók's String Quartet No. 1 for its clarity and dancing rhythms, and most impressively they found real nobility and depth in Mendelssohn's youthful String Quartet No. 2 in A minor. 

Shaham's incisive, clear-headed playing in Bartók's Violin Concerto No. 2 Friday was the strongest element in a mismatched Chamber Symphony program led by German-born composer-conductor Matthias Pintscher.

As a part of playing his way through four concertos written during the 1930s, Shaham delivered pinpoint intonation and total control of tone to bring out the Romantic side of the Bartók. To be sure, that's the violin's role in this work, to sing while the orchestra punctuates, grumbles and occasionally erupts into more complex paroxysms. The warmth of Shaham's sound and his palpable generosity with the musicians surrounding him made the sometime thorny, dissonant concerto a riveting experience. Pintscher found good dynamic balances and maneuvered the stops and starts of the music deftly.

He took a more grandiose approach to Ravel's “Ma Mère l'Oye” (“Mother Goose”), perhaps in response to raindrops beating on the tent in varying intensities throughout. In the opener, a heavy-handed and rough-edged performance marred Caplet's orchestration of Debussy's familiar piano piece, “Clair de Lune.”

The concert also included Pintscher's own “songs from Solomon's garden” (his capitalization), a setting of excerpts from the Old Testament Songs of Solomon in the original Hebrew. This composer displays a sure hand with orchestration and form, but why he chose to accompany this beautiful, seductive, suggestive poetry with angry, grating music, set against angular lines for the baritone (sung gamely by Evan Hughes) puzzles me.