Aspen Music Festival 2011: Takács Quartet, Finckel and Han, Emerson Quartet and Simone Dinnerstein

Aspen Music Festival (4): Takács Quartet, David Finckel and Wu Han, Emerson Quartet, Simone Dinnerstein. 15.7.2011 (HS)

Longtime Aspen favorite pianist Wu Han and cellist David Finckel rode to the rescue Wednesday when a bad back kept star pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet from performing his scheduled Special Event concert in Harris Hall. Finckel was on an airplane when the call came that afternoon, en route to Aspen to perform Thursday with the Emerson Quartet.

Finckel looked and sounded fresh, playing entirely from memory on the program, which the husband and wife team has been playing on tour. Beethoven’s two early sonatas, Op. 5, emerged with wonderful vitality and clarity. Brisk tempos and dazzling runs enlivened the music, but the core of the work, the conversation between the cello and piano, came through engagingly. Clearly, too, they were having fun with 12 Variations on Handel’s “See the conqu’ring hero comes” from Judas Maccabaeus, especially in the final variations when the theme returns, slows to an adagio and finishes with flair.

The highlight of the evening was the final work, Brahms’ Cello Sonata No. 1 in E Minor, a model of balance, eloquence, flair and one thoughtful gesture after another.

The Emerson Quartet’s cellist, Finckel was in place Thursday in the tent for the quartet’s only appearance on this year’s program. Violinist Philip Setzer had appeared with Finckel and Han the opening night concert June 29, and took the lead in a crackling performance of Schubert’s final Quartet in G Major, a performance flawed only by the quartet’s iffy intonation. That’s a rare occurrence for the Emerson. Some critics dismiss them for not being expressive enough because they play with such precision, but this time it was a persuasive emotional approach that overcame minor tuning issues, as they dug with zeal into Schubert’s fantasy-like shifts in direction.

They all seemed a bit jet lagged in a subdued walk through the opening Haydn Quartet in D Minor, Op. 3, but things perked up considerably in an incisive Bartok Quartet No. 6. If this wasn’t the Emerson at its best, it still beat 90 percent of the major quartets out there.

In its program Tuesday in Harris Hall, its second in four days, the Takács Quartet lavished carefully modulated playing on works by Schubert and Brahms. Tempos were well judged, transitions well thought through, even down to details in bowing with the guest artists who joined them for Brahms’ String Sextet No. 2. They introduced a new piece to Aspen by Daniel Kellogg, “Soft sleep shall contain you: A Meditation on Schubert’s Death and the Maiden,” and followed it with the actual quartet, one of the pinnacles of the chamber music literature.

The Kellogg piece has some gorgeous moments, playing on the beautifully constructed chorale that opens the second movement of the Schubert. Kellogg transforms the music into his own, layering it into soft dissonances, creating colorful and evocative sonorities at both the high and low ends of the instruments’ range. It moves quietly and pensively, for the most part, touching on literal quotations from the chorale from time to time, ultimately returning to a straightforward rendering of Schubert’s music at the end.

Much as I admired the clarity of the quartet’s approach to the Schubert, partway through I found myself wondering what was missing. It bothered me through intermission and even in the keenly crafted playing of the Brahms. And then it happened. The last few pages of the Brahms sprang to life. The music achieved an energy and buoyancy that lit up the stage. If only the whole concert had that, it would have been fabulous. Still, it was well worth hearing this ensemble and the guest players, violist James Dunham and cellist Darrett Adkins.

On Tuesday, violinist Gil Shaham played the Stravinsky Concerto with the conducting academy orchestra, two different conductors sharing the responsibility. Playing his third concerto from the 1930s in a series of four, each with a different orchestra, Shaham captured all of the wit and tricky rhythms in Stravinsky’s neoclassical masterpiece. The orchestra finally clicked into place for the second aria and the finale.

With Thibaudet sidelined, Simone Dinnerstein offered the only solo piano recital this week, the best aspect a stunningly expressive and fluid set of Schubert Impromptus, Op. 90. Each one emerged with finely judged tempos and dynamics, offering soulful playing in the funeral march of No. 1, dramatic flair in No. 2, lyrical legato in No. 3 and sprinkling the rapid arpeggios of No. 4 with a deft touch. That one finally brought a smile to her face, which had been wrinkled in concentration throughout the concert.

Her serious demeanor made the opening set of Schumann Fantasiestücke, Op. 73, veer off into some heavy-handed moments. Her J.S. Bach Partita No. 2, despite some Romantic flourishes, came off with much more grace.

Not to miss in the coming days: Opera Theater offers Britten’s enchanting A Midsummer Night’s Dream tonight at the Wheeler Opera House. Those who prefer to wait for Monday’s repeat performance can hear the remarkable pianist Joyce Yang play a program with violinist Stefan Jackiw in Harris Hall at 8. Earlier, Sylvia Rosenberg and James Dunham play a Mozart duo in the afternoon chamber music concert at Harris. Sunday’s Festival Orchestra concert features the great young violinist Julia Fischer, who returns to Aspen to perform a Brahms’ concerto with cellist Daniel Mueller-Schott.

Harvey Steiman