Review: Finding Contrasts in chamber music at Aspen Musical Festival |

Review: Finding Contrasts in chamber music at Aspen Musical Festival

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times

Majestic playing in slow movements highlighted Thursday night’s Takacs Quartet recital. The program in Harris Hall reached its zenith in the sublime richness and complexity of the Molto Adagio in Beethoven’s late Op. 132 Quartet and in Barber’s famous Adagio for Strings.

The quartet applied warmth, refinement and clarity to Barber’s Adagio. Best known for its oft-played string-orchestra version, it was part of the American composer’s only string quartet. It made a worthy nod to the Independence Day holiday on an otherwise all-European week of music.

But it was Beethoven that hit the greatest heights. The whole performance was marked by attentive and evocative playing, but it was the expansive, soul-soothing middle movement that reached full emotional potency. The music explores a hymn-like idea, and these musicians applied both precision and intensity to all its unexpected turns.

The program began with the lurches and occasional screeches of Janacek’s highly conversational “Intimate Letters” quartet. The Takacs has a special feeling for Eastern European composers, especially Janacek and Bartok, and the musicians’ natural feeling for the Czech composer’s ever-shifting musical style comes through vividly. As Janacek traces his relationship with a much-younger muse from its rough beginnings (the screeches and growls of the first movement) to the sheer joy of the finale, the quartet made the feelings palpable.

The Takacs plays Janacek’s other (and more romantically inclined) quartet and Beethoven’s “Razumovsky” quartet on its second program Tuesday.

The husband-and-wife team of cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han always find their way through the most complex and challenging music as if it were being played by a single musician. And whenever Han joined the Emerson Quartet (where Finckel was the cellist until leaving the ensemble last year), her sharp sense of musical teamwork produced consistently unanimous performances.

Such was the case in a vivid performance of the Shostakovich Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor, with violinist Philip Setzer, a longtime associate of Finckel’s in the Emerson Quartet.

So it was a bit of a surprise when Beethoven’s early Piano Trio in G major felt a bit tentative in opening Tuesday’s much-anticipated recital. In the Beethoven, played with rhythmic precision and unanimity of phrasing, it just seemed as though Setzer took awhile to settle in, and while he did, there was a sense of holding back instead of letting the music unfurl freely.

The Shostakovich was remarkable for the way each individual contribution seemed to inspire the others to push the music forward. The hellishly difficult opening phrases, played in stratospherically high-range harmonics on the cello with absolute precision by Finckel, opened the way for the violin’s stealthy entrance in counterpoint (and lower than the cello) and the piano’s rumbling ruminations. When a staccato rhythm finally kicked in, the strings in quiet harmony, it was only the beginning of colorful and masterfully articulated episodes.

The second movement, taken at a rapid clip, lost none of the details, such as quick crescendos and crisp melodic turns. The big piano chords that start the largo had a sense of power instead of clangor, and if the finale’s nods to Klezmer music could have had a bit more schmaltz, the net effect was full of life. The ensuing standing ovation was richly deserved.

The three were hitting on all cylinders for the final work, Dvorak’s “Dumky” trio. Filled as it is with contrasting dance episodes, the “Dumky” bounced with rhythmic vitality throughout, minimizing the contrasts in favor of appreciating the arc of each of Dvorak’s six movements.

As tightly focused as Tuesday’s concert was, Stephen Hough seemed to turn on the jets and go for maximum contrast in Wednesday’s piano recital. This was especially evident in the pieces just before and after the intermission. In Brahms’ “Fantasien,” Hough invested the three capriccios with stinging power, undeterred by some overly clangy phrases. The four intermezzos were all played with comparative calm.

The contrasts were even more stark in Hough’s own Piano Sonata No. 2 (“Notturno Luminoso”), which opens with a pleasant jazz-inflected tune, richly harmonized in sixths and ninths, interrupted at the end of each phrase with short outbursts of aggressively dissonant, fast-moving, cadenza-like figures. There is also a clash between a calm central section and the return of these original ideas.

Hough makes a big point of these contrasts in a program note, so I can only assume these are intentional. But on first hearing, the results were so disparate as to be hard to reconcile. A final section sends all the major gestures in the 18-minute piece into a big crash, subsiding on a cool consonance that somehow does not seem earned.

Hough’s formidable technique can make for impressive moments, as in his run through Schumann’s “Carnaval,” notable especially for how well he could evoke the individual personalities of the “Commedia dell’Arte” characters in this series of more than 20 miniatures.

A series of short works opened his recital, beginning with “Sechs Kleine Klavierstucke,” by Schoenberg, none exceeding 17 measures but each one a marvel of quiet musical scene painting. More revelations came with three short pieces by Richard Strauss, Wagner and Bruckner. None of them may be renowned for piano music, but the charm of them all, especially an Albumblatt by Wagner, made a wonderful musical package.

Gil Shaham and Joshua Bell, regulars at the Aspen Music Festival, take on two of the most colorful violin concertos in major orchestral programs this weekend. Shaham plays the Bartok Concerto No. 2 today at 6 p.m. with the Chamber Orchestra, Robert Spano conducting a program that also includes Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Bell plays the ultra-Romantic Bruch concerto Sunday at 4 p.m., Miguel Harth-Bedoya conducting a program that introduces the festival’s new organ in Saint-Saens’ extravagant Symphony No. 3. (Try not to think of obedient pigs in the finale; the music was sprinkled liberally through the film “Babe.”)

Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival for 20 years. His reviews appear twice a week in The Aspen Times.