On its final weekend, the Aspen Music Festival went out with some glory and a few stubbed toes. Even with iconoclastic pianist Vladimir Feltsman playing all four of Brahms' unique ballades in one giant arc and festival music director David Zinman leading rousing performances of Stravinsky and Ravel with full chorus, by far the most memorable piece of music-making involved a conductor little known in the United States and a rarely heard Sibelius symphony.
Osmo Vänskä, who has much of Europe abuzz for his work with the Lahti orchestra in his native Finland, brought the Aspen Chamber Orchestra to its high point of the season in his traversal of the Sibelius Third. He made a persuasive case that this work should be heard much more often. Maybe it's not quite as a lushly romantic as the second or fifth symphonies, but under Vänskä's baton it yielded a treasury of gems.
You could hear the sense of commitment as the music unfolded, the orchestra playing with unanimity of purpose difficult to achieve in a festival where the principals are professionals and the rest of the musicians are hand-picked students from the associated music school. Sibelius always sounds special under a conductor who has grown up with the music. The composer's charms don't come from overt readings but from conductors who carefully shape the sounds and textures, then find tempos that let the subterranean rhythms emerge organically as the music develops.
Vänskä got all of that, capping it all off with a long, thrilling accelerando that led to a climax stunning its power. He got a lot of the Nordic character in the opening piece as well, Einojuhani Rautavarra's stubbornly romantic 1995 composition "Isle of Bliss," which opened the program. By contrast, the Martinu concerto for two pianos suffered from ragged rhythmic execution in the orchestra and lack of bite from pianists Misha and Cipa Dichter, who looked and played as if they were barely interested.
The next evening, Russian-born pianist Vladimir Feltsman opened his concert with J.S. Bach's "Overture in the French Manner," which is really an extended suite peppered with the same sort of dances that enliven Bach's partitas, sonatas and suites, then played all four of the Chopin ballades as if they were four movements of the same work, eschewing applause between them.
I find Feltsman exasperating to listen to. He has enormous technique at his disposal. He can romp through Bach's most complex counterpoint, keeping the rhythmic flow and bringing out inner voices at will. He can blast through Chopin's most insanely demanding runs and grand moments as if they were child's play. But he also bends and twists the music in ways that make my blood boil.
Earlier this summer, he played the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1, the famous one in B flat minor, as if it were some dark, brooding, undiscovered masterpiece by Shostakovich, completely downplaying its charm, pulling back on the big, glorious moments. A couple of years ago he played the entire J.S. Bach "Well Tempered Klavier, Book 1," indulging in one romantic gesture after another which made it seem like Bach by way of Beethoven.
For this concert, he played the Bach overture/suite with no traces of willfulness. It was pristine Bach, almost crystalline in the way it brought out the line of melody developing through the counterpoint. Then came the Brahms. Feltsman played the quiet sections with eloquence and a remarkable delicacy of touch, but he rushed through Chopin's runs -- which have as much to say in the fabric of musical storytelling -- as if he could not wait to get through them. At other times he hesitated on phrases for no apparent reason, and rushed others. It seemed the greater the technical demands of the music, the more Feltsman felt he had to subdue them, show how fast he could play them. They went by in a blur, and the magic, for me, was gone.
Sunday's final concert of the nine-week season brought Zinman back to the podium for a cogent performance of Stravinsky's no-nonsense "Symphony of Psalms" and Ravel's entire ballet score to "Daphnis et Chloé," not just the usually heard Suite No. 2. There's not much to tie these two works together, other than the fact that they both use a chorus. The Stravinsky uses limited forces, eschewing violins and clarinets, among other instruments, in an effort to make the orchestra more closely sound like a pipe organ. Ravel uses an outsized orchestra with his trademark colorful orchestration, and employs the chorus wordlessly for its sheer sound.
In performance, the terseness and unsentimental religiosity of the symphony, combined with the flamboyant scene-setting of the first half of the "Daphnis" score, helped set off the fireworks of the final section even more explosively. Zinman is a master at building tension in music and releasing it in a blaze of a climax, and that suits the end of "Daphnis" perfectly. All in all, not a bad way to end a summer of music.