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Seen and Heard Festival Review

 

Aspen Music Festival (XIV) Forbidden Music with James Conlon, Vladmir Feltsman and Friends (HS)

 

Some performances are better than jewels. They are big, honking diamonds that outshine everything around them. Vladimir Feltsman delivered one of those when the pianist teamed up with several of the music school faculty's most compelling artists in the final Harris Hall program of the Aspen Music Festival Saturday evening.

 

Violinist Oleh Krysa, whom we hear way too seldom here, and cellist Thomas Grossenbacher, who always seems to make the musicians he collaborates with better, played with Feltsman on all three pieces. They were alone for a raw, exhilarating Shostakovich Piano Trio No. 2. Violist Kathleen Mattis joined them for a vigorous reading of Mozart's Piano Quartet in G minor, and Joaquin Valdepeñas contributed his gorgeous clarinet playing to the stunning finale, Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time.

 

The Mozart quartet could have been just a warm-up foothill for these majestic mountains of twentieth-century chamber music, but by giving it additional weight it seemed to fit the program just fine. Even so, the glowing Andante was more satisfying than the more highly charged outer movements. Mozart sounded more like Beethoven, but the musicians were so compelling it didn't matter.

 

Grossenbacher's first pianissimo traversal of Shostakovich's opening folk-like theme in sky-high harmonics didn't sound as pure as it should, and Feltsman set such a rapid pace for the second movement that the quick crescendos that make the music feel so, well, Shostakovich-like, lost some of their oomph. But the passion of their playing made a cumulative effect that was simply overwhelming.

 

This is live performance. It's part of the price we pay for such thrills as the third movement of the Trio, a heart-rending passacaglia in which Feltsman's pillars of chords supported the shrugging pathos of Krysa's Fiddler-on-the-Roof turn at a Hebraic melody. (Shostakovich wrote the piece as a tribute to a recently deceased Jewish violinist friend, and it is rife with Hebrew tunes and turns.) The finale was sheer magic, a fantasy of all the tricks and turns possible in a string quartet forged into unforgettably powerful music. The trio sounded like a full orchestra at times, finishing with a heart-stopping hush.

 

Maybe the only thing that could top that is Messiaen's astonishing outpouring of love and religious devotion as his answer to incarceration as a prisoner of war. The Quartet for the End of Time, which uses a clarinet in place of a viola because that's what the composer had available to him in the prison camp, uses all the elements that make his music unmistakable.

 

Pungent dissonances rub shoulders with pure, gorgeous, open chords. Rhythms, which at first seem to lurch this way and that, somehow coalesce into something that makes perfect sense. And through it all, birdsong. Frankly imitative at one turn, fleshed out with complex harmonies at another, the composer's careful notation of what he heard in the trees and bushes in France and in his travels permeates his music, defines it in a way that no other composer even attempted. The result is a raw naturalism, and when it works, as it does in this piece, it infuses a listener's senses.

 

The eight movements all carry titles referring the biblical Revelation of St. John, and three of them are pure solos. The other players laid down their instruments and listened raptly in the third movement as Valdepeñas, all alone, took Messiaen's bird calls and molded them into a clarinet solo that unfolded like an inspired improvisation. Entrances came out of nowhere and died away like ghosts. Rapid-fire articulation in all registers was a hallmark. Feltsman's quiet, insistent accompaniment framed Grossenbacher's long, slow, singing line in the fifth movement and Krysa's absolutely gorgeous, tonally consonant violin solo in the finale, which closes with music that rises gently into the stratosphere in both the piano and the violin.

 

The ensemble sections had a muscular dimension that gave the 45-minute piece its momentum, especially in the panoply of birdsong in the opening movement, the lively dance of the fourth movement and the juicy rhythms of the sixth. Through it all, Feltsman's unstoppable sense of propulsion made him the perfect collaborator for the other soloists in this music.

 

What it added up to is an evening of music that the 600 or so who squeezed into Harris Hall, including the stage, will not soon forget.

 

The Messiaen and Shostakovich pieces fit into "Forbidden Music: Silenced Voices," the last of the mini-festivals embedded in this year's festival. Conductor James Conlon has a passion for and champions a group of European composers whose lives and works were suppressed by the Nazis in the 1930s and 1940s. In recent years, Conlon has conducted major works by Zemlinsky and Erwin Schulhoff here. This year he added Viktor Ullmann and Carl Frühling to the list. For context, the weekend's musical menu included the Messiaen, because he wrote it when he was a prisoner of war, Shostakovich because he wrote under the thumb of Stalin, and a work by Korngold before he fled Germany for the United States and film composing.

 

The weekend began with Conlon leading a fascinating concert that sandwiched Shostakovich and Schubert around a piano concerto by Ullmann, a Czech composer who was snuffed out by the Third Reich.

 

The concerto, written in 1939, didn't get its world premiere until 1992, when festivals started to pop up in Germany focusing on music suppressed by the Nazis. Ullmann actually self-published the music in 1940, but it was pulled from its scheduled debut concert because both he and the pianist were Jews. Shortly thereafter Ullmann was interned at Terezin, the "show" camp the Nazis kept to show how humane the camps supposedly were. There he wrote 23 more pieces until one of them angered the Nazis enough to send him to Auschwitz, and his death.

 

Anyone expecting dour, tough music from a composer under those circumstances would be surprised. The concerto is light-hearted, snappy, sprightly, and quick. It barely covers 17 minutes, but it's densely packed with musical ideas. Especially striking in the first movement is the way the piano answers growling, jagged chords in the trombones and tuba with its own reflection of the same chords in the low register. The movement ends with the timpani picking up and finishing the melodic phrase.

 

There is dissonance, but it's the dissonance I associate with composers such as Milhaud and Poulenc, pungent but not nasty. The rhythmic pulse is the main thread, even more than melody and harmony, and the finale dances a sort of off-kilter jig in 5/4. The two middle movements, a soft andante tranquillo and a lively fugato marked allegro, give the piano some lovely, almost jazz-like music to play.

 

This is obviously a piece Conlon believes in, and he made a strong case for it. Pianist Christopher Taylor contributed clear, colorful playing.

 

To open the concert, Conlon chose Shostakovich's neo-classical, witty Symphony No. 9, extending the theme of composers writing under heavy political clouds. The Ninth was a thumb-to-nose, waggling-finger salute to Stalin upon the Soviets' victory over the invading Nazi forces in 1945. The supreme commander was expecting an extravaganza à la Beethoven. Instead, he got a snide little pastiche of Haydn, complete with a mocking circus polka instead of a military march.

 

Conlon could have caught a tad more of the music's sardonic wit, especially in the rapid-fire finale, but it would be hard to beat the noble solo by principal bassoon Steven Dibner, which dominates the Largo. Scaling the highest range of the instrument with gorgeous sound, pouring out the recitative-like melody like a Slavic baritone in full cry, Dibner brought depth and pathos to the emotional center of the work, suggesting what Shostakovich called the Russian soul he wanted to preserve in the face of the Soviet regime.

 

Schubert's Symphony No. 4 "Tragic" completed the program, in a performance long on elegance. I only wished for a bit more weight, more Beethovenian brooding which is inherent in this C-minor work.

 

A long Saturday afternoon chamber concert focused entirely on these "forbidden" composers, including a set of six lieder by Ullmann in settings for an hoc chamber orchestra by Geert van Keulen. Conlon conducted and soprano Marjorie Owens sang the songs, which had a vaguely Schubertian feel. The Korngold piece, Suite for Piano Left Hand and Strings, featured pianist Leon Fleisher, two student violinists and a student cellist in an earnest but long, loud and seemingly incessant marathon.

 

The highlights of the concert were two works for smaller forces. The Clarinet Trio in A Minor by Carl Frühling, a Jewish composer born in Poland who died in poverty in Vienna, sounded like something Brahms might have written if he had lived into the twentieth century, still lush and romantic, but with just a suggestion of an edge to it. Bil Jackson played the clarinet solos gently. An offbeat little Concertino for Flute, Viola and Bass by Erwin Schulhoff, like Ullman a Czech composer, found Nadine Asin alternating on flute and piccolo and playing a lot of pretty pentatonic flourishes against bouncy rhythms and countermelodies from violist Lawrence Dutton and bassist Eugene Levinson.

 

Are these long-lost masterworks on the same level as Messiaen and Shostakovich? Probably not. But, as one concertgoer commented at intermission, "It is such a privilege to hear this music."

 

Harvey Steiman

 

 

Note: Harvey Steiman will be writing regularly from the Aspen Music Festival through its conclusion on August 22.



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