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Seen and Heard International Festival Review
ASPEN FESTIVAL 2005 (III): Big Beethoven, warm Berg, technicolor Shostakovich, Aspen, Colorado, 11 July 2005 (HS)
Beethoven's Symphony No. 9, in a lavish benefit performance, was the big draw last weekend at the Aspen Music Festival, but the most satisfying music making came the next day with Christian Tetzlaff's sensational Berg violin concerto and a delicious, borderline rabid performance of the Shostakovich Symphony No. 10 under the baton of Michael Stern.
The Berg concerto is a strange and wonderful beast. It is atonal, but Berg could not resist creating romantic harmonic sonorities and plush resonances that make the tone rows actually sound romantic. He had a sentimental reason for writing it -- to memorialize the death of 18-year-old Manon Gropius -- and it shows when the concerto finishes on a richly harmonized Bach chorale "Es ist genug!" This creates an unexpected marriage of atonal and tonal music, and in wispy, quiet dynamics, the effect is haunting.
Tetzlaff was nothing short of magical in the Berg, bringing the utmost delicacy and real romantic feeling to the music. The tone was sweet and warm, the phrasing shaped with the same sort of care a violinist might lavish on Tchaikovsky or Brahms -- or maybe Mozart.
Stern was right there with him, getting a floating cloud of a pianissimo out of the Aspen Festival Orchestra when Tetzlaff brought his sound to the quietest of dynamics. Their phrasing was unanimous, rare enough in a multiple performance run when conductor and soloist can refine their approach with multiple run-throughs, virtually unheard-of in a one-shot festival date.
After four curtain calls, Tetzlaff acknowledged his standing ovation with a remarkable encore, the Largo from Bach's unaccompanied violin sonata in C. It was a heart-stoppingly pure, hushed, time-suspending, you-could-hear-a-pin-drop-in-the-tent moment.
The Shostakovich 10th has its quiet moments, too, but inevitably they build into massive fortissimos and crashing climaxes. Stern got it all in a rhythmically potent performance of this hour-long symphony that still gave plenty of space to the strings to let their quieter phrases hang in the air. Soloists distinguished themselves all over the stage, most notably bassoonist Steven Dibner and clarinetist Ted Oien.
Berg and Shostakovich. Who would have thought they would overshadow the Beethoven Ninth. But they did.
One of the big issues with Beethoven's Ninth is speed. Too fast a pace and you can exhaust your energy before the work is done. Too slow and the experience lacks something. It is fashionable these days to play Beethoven faster than we have been accustomed to hearing. If you follow the composer's metronome markings, the Ninth goes by in less than an hour. The 74-minute capacity of a compact disc famously was arrived at to accommodate the more usual length of a contemporary performance of the Ninth.
The 2,000-seat Benedict Music Tent was jam-packed Saturday night for "The Ninth of the Ninth," the most publicized event of the summer. Music director David Zinman drew plenty of energy from the assembled forces of the Aspen Chamber Symphony, the Colorado Symphony Orchestra Chorus from Denver and an uneven quartet of vocal soloists.
Zinman favors quick tempos, especially in the opening and closing movements, without getting didactic about metronome markings. This has an invigorating effect, but it has some potential drawbacks. It makes for less of a contrast with the second movement unless the already-fast scherzo goes at a breakneck clip.
Zinman allowed the details of the scherzo to speak, but his tempos took some of the mystery from the opening measures of the symphony, which came off as perfunctory. And, by pushing the tempo in the opening measures of the finale, the recitative-like statements of the cellos and basses sounded almost like a march, which is hardly what Beethoven intended.
These carpings aside, the overall effect was a gathering of momentum as Zinman shaped a series of satisfying climaxes in the opening movement. The scherzo danced by nimbly, with better dynamic flexibility than in the first movement, and the noble slow movement maintained its pulse and rich textures, even as Zinman eased up on the tempo.
Once past the introductory paragraphs of the finale and into the "Ode to Joy," Zinman and the orchestra got plenty of color and contrast into the theme and variations that followed. Other than a couple of bobbled high notes, bass Kurt Link got the "let's gather the people" sentiment of his recitative perfectly and set the vocal portion of the finale into motion well. Tenor Vinson Cole and mezzo-soprano Susanne Mentzer, both Aspen regulars, made the most impressive contributions to the vocal quartet. Soprano Hyanah Yu displayed a lovely sound but seemed a bit underpowered for the assignment in spots.
Some horn flubs and a few ragged entrances aside, the orchestra responded well to Zinman's approach, and the chorus powered up for some big sounds, even if it missed some of the magic of the quieter moments.
The concert opened with Beethoven's Choral Fantasy, a hybrid work that starts off like it might be a piano concerto (Joseph Kalichstein played the thankless soloist's role with a few clunkers). Then it morphs into a choral work, finishing up like an eerie premonition of the Ninth's finale. Its many musical gestures are so similar to the Ninth that it might have robbed it of its power, if the Ninth were any less of a majestic work than it is.