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An Evening With Joshua Bell, violin, Benedict Music Tent, Aspen, Colorado, July 17, 2002 (HS)


Brahms' Piano Quintet in F Minor and Tchaikovsky's Souvenir de Florence are two of the highest-voltage pieces in the Romantic chamber music string literature. With Joshua Bell, one of the premier violinists of our day, in the featured role, their performance should have had a lot more pizzazz than it did on this balmy evening in Aspen. The near-capacity crowd leapt to its feet after both pieces, probably more a reflection of the compositions themselves than the underwhelming performances they received.

This was part of the "Evening With..." series at the Aspen Music Festival, in which a featured artist gets to step out of the usual solo role and make music with a few friends. Last week, cellist Lynn Harrell and violist Masao Kawasaki demonstrated how it should be done, bringing tremendous class to a Mozart flute quartet and the Brahms Sextet in B Flat. Bell had a fine group of collaborators, including Alexander Kerr, the concertmaster of the Royal Concertgebouw orchestra, playing second fiddle (literally), and violist James Dunham, formerly of the Cleveland Quartet. Joseph Kalichstein was the pianist in the Brahms. Harrell played in the Tchaikovsky.

You would think they would grab on to this music and run with it. But both pieces suffered from lackluster dynamics and smudgy rhythms. Perhaps in a misguided effort to avoid an overblown performance, the players missed one telling detail after another. The big chorale that interrupts the scherzo in the Brahms, for example, seemed more like a chance to gather breath after executing those dotted-eighth rhythms than the glorious outburst it should be. The wild Russian dances that enliven the two final movements of Souvenir came off more like a ballroom two-step. It didn't help that Bell himself seemed to develop a wiry, steely sound whenever he played louder than mezzo forte.

It was in the more tranquil phrases that the evening found its best moments. The Andante of the Brahms was exquisite, right down to the final pizzicato chords, and in the Adagio Cantabile of the Tchaikovsky, Bell and Harrell handed off the aria-like melody as if they were two sizes of the same instrument. Credit Harrell for following Bell's lead and giving the tune the same inflections.

But time after time, the ensemble fudged important details, as the sequence of phrases in Souvenir in which quick triplet pickups become quadruplets in the last of four repeated phrases. It's a detail that cranks up the tension when executed sharply, but this group missed it completely.

Musically, the best performance was the opener, a recently discovered movement (marked "Nicht zu schnell") from an incomplete piano quartet in A minor by Mahler. The piece was written in 1876, when Mahler was still a student. It shows a mastery of the form but little of the individual voice we think of as Mahler, except perhaps that it tends to slip into unrelated keys with little warning. It's a tidy 10 minutes of music, and I just wish the rest of the concert was as well played. The protagonists in that one were Bell, Dunham, Kalichstein and cellist Michael Mermagen, a member of the American Chamber Players.

Internet-savvy listeners can hear the "Evening With..." series by going to the WFMT-FM web site and clicking on the "Listen Live" icon. The Chicago radio station is carrying the series live for the next three Thursdays at 6 p.m. Mountain Daylight Time (1 a.m. GMT). The July 25 concert features pianist Leon Fleisher, August 1 pianist Misha Dichter and August 8 cellist David Finckel of the Emerson Quartet with his wife, the estimable pianist Wu Han.

Harvey Steiman

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