Review: The cello sonata’s many facets | AspenTimes.com

Review: The cello sonata’s many facets

The husband and wife team of David Finckel and Wu Han are longtime Aspen favorites. Their recitals together and independently often are among the best-attended. They seem to be able to play anything from Bach to Britten with ease. They not only mind-meld on matters of style and articulation, but often find a way to expose the heart of the music so clearly you might wonder why you never quite heard it that way before.

The pieces on their program Wednesday in Harris Hall required cellist Finckel to apply a dizzying range of techniques for effect, including a stretch during the Britten quartet in which he tapped with fingers of both hands on the cello's strings as if playing a set of drums. Moments like that spiky little percussive duet with the piano came off as charming, not at all artificial.

Some of the best moments in the recital, in fact, involved intimate and intricately witty passages where the musical line gets tossed back and forth. Their sense of timing gave these aspects extra sparkle. The Britten, prominent on this year's programming in his centennial year, emerged as the most colorful and complete performance. Wu Han's piano interjections in the giggle-inducing Scherzo, the emotional gravity of Finckel's singing cello line in the central Elegia, the tart harmonies of the Marcia and the virtuosity required from both for the breathless Presto finale lacked nothing for color, and brought the concert to a finish on a high.

The all-Russian first half paired Prokofiev's alternately growly and lyrical sonata with Shostakovich's, which characteristically for this composer alternates between tough, hammering rhythms and expansive, almost euphoric outbursts of melody. Of the two pieces, the duo got more juice out of the Shostakovich, especially in the long, arching lines of the third movement Largo, and, for contrast, the tricky rhythmic give-and-take in the whacky Allegro finale, like a dance from Mars.

Debussy was the odd man out in this lineup. As opposed to the brittle spikiness that punctuated the other pieces, this sonata remained resolutely charming and lush. What made it compelling was how swiftly and seamlessly the mood changed from languid to twinkling, and, in the second movement, how many different sounds Finckel could coax from his cello against Wu Han's softly pulsing accompaniment. At one point he strums it like a guitar, at another high harmonics suggest a flute.

Finckel recently left the Emerson Quartet to, in addition to teaching, devote more time to this sort of concertizing. If the concerts are all this good, audiences should be celebrating.

Tuesday evening the Takács Quartet took on the three Bartók Quartets they didn't play last week, and if anything raised the level of intensity.

No. 2 started with deceptively gentle waves of melodic gestures playing against swaying, subterranean rhythms that were more understood than stated. The contrast with the brutal dissonances in the central Allegro (marked, incongruously, "capriccioso") was suitably jarring. Each player held nothing back, and yet it all folded together like a piece of origami. The finale's slow-moving, desolate harmonies spun out with a dry-eyed calm. Only the occasional hesitation, like an intake of breath, suggested the churning emotion underneath.

The intricately assembled, often baffling, No. 4 underlined what this ensemble was accomplishing. Four different people—András Fejér slumped over his cello, Geraldine Walther loosely moving with the music, Kárloly Schranz frowning into the score as if willing every ounce of inspiration from it, Edward Dusinberre sitting erect and positioning his violin as if to pierce through the music—found remarkably fertile common ground. Transitions from one gesture to the next felt absolutely natural. Subtle shifts of tempo, all moving as one, brought extra life to the music. This is what string quartets strive to do, seldom with such unanimity.

They did all this, mind you, while coping with a kaleidoscopic assortment of instrumental effects. Playing with mutes, plucking pizzicatos, floating high harmonics, fingering without vibrato, bowing close to the bridge for a metallic sound and strumming chords as if they were guitars, to describe a few, created an amazing array of timbres and sonorities. It all contributed to a fabulously colorful performance.

The first movement of No. 4 generated its propulsive energy from minute overlaps of short phrases. The second, mostly played with mutes, skittered past like small animals through the grass, which made the night music of the central third movement all the more eerie. The fourth movement, mostly pizzicato, emerged with stealthy precision, and the finale, with its Stravinsky-like incessant rhythms, brought things to a rousing conclusion.

After such polychromatic music, the prevailing sadness of No. 6 could have come as a letdown. But the soulful renditions of the "Mesto" theme, first announced without accompaniment by Walther's viola in a beautifully shaded opening and later elaborated upon by Fejér's cello against hauntingly stuttering chords from the other three, seemed to contain within them so much beauty that it was impossible to grieve.

Not to miss In the coming days

The Britten celebration continues tonight with Wu Han playing the seldom-performed but charming piano concerto with the Chamber Orchestra, and Sunday with Daniel Hope in the violin concerto with the Festival Orchestra. Schubert's Trout Quintet is featured in Saturday afternoon's faculty chamber music, Ann Schein on piano. Bernstein's "Candide" concludes its run at the Wheeler Saturday and Monday evenings. But the most fascinating program might be pianist Jeremy Denk's Saturday evening, with pieces by Beethoven, Janacek and Stravinsky.

Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival for 19 years. His reviews appear twice a week in The Aspen Times.