Evocative Shostakovich, A Sonata by Stephen Hough, and the Triumphant Takács Quartet

United StatesUnited States Aspen Music Festival (1): Philip Setzer (violin), David Finckel (cello), Wu Han (piano), Stephen Hough (piano), Takács Quartet. Harris Hall, Aspen, Colorado. 1-3.7.2014 (HS)

Recital, 1 July
Philip Setzer, violin
David Finckel, cello
Wu Han, piano
Beethoven: Piano Trio in G major, Op. 1 No. 2
Shostakovich: Piano Trio No. 2 in E Minor
Dvořák: Piano Trio, Op. 90 “Dumky

Stephen Hough (piano), 2 July
Schoenberg: Sechs kleine Klavierstücke, Op. 19
R. Strauss: Traümerei, Op. 9
Wagner: Albumblatt in C major, “In das Album der Fuerstin Metternich”
Bruckner: Erinnerung in A-flat major
Brahms: Fantasien, op. 116
Stephen Hough: Piano Sonata No. 2 (notturno luminoso)
Schumann: Carnaval, scènes mignonnes sur quatre notes, Op. 9

Takács Quartet, 3 July
Edward Dusinerre, violin
Károly Schranz, violin
Geraldine Walther, viola
András Fejér, cello
Janáček: String Quartet No. 2, “Intimate Letters”
Barber: Adagio for Strings
Beethoven: String Quartet in A minor, Op. 132


In the alpine setting of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, the Aspen Music Festival runs for seven weeks, a combination of international professionals and talented students that provides the most extensive programming of any U.S. summer festival. This week, my first in residence here, was all about chamber music, the highlights including an evocative rendering of the Shostakovich Trio No. 2 by musicians associated with the Emerson Quartet, a majestic performance of Beethoven’s late Quartet Op. 132 by the Takács Quartet and a broad-ranging recital by pianist Stephen Hough.

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. 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 Harris Hall with violinist Philip Setzer, a longtime associate of Finckel’s in the Emerson Quartet.

The rest of the recital included a vivid performance of the Shostakovich Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor, and the three were hitting on all cylinders for the final work, Dvořák’s “Dumky” Trio. In the Beethoven, played with rhythmic precision and unanimity of phrasing, it just seemed as though Setzer took a while 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 by 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 “Dumky,” filled as it is with contrasting dance episodes, bounced with rhythmic vitality throughout, minimizing the contrasts in favor of appreciating the arc of each of Dvořák’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 his piano 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 as much power as he could, 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 the recital, beginning with Sechs kleine Klavierstücke 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 whom may be renowned for piano music, but the charm of them all, especially an Albumblatt by Wagner, made a wonderful musical package.

Majestic playing in slow movements highlighted Thursday night’s Takács Quartet recital, the first of two by the Colorado-based ensemble. The program began with the lurches and occasional screeches of Janáček’s highly conversational “Intimate Letters” Quartet but it 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, 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 Takács has a special feeling for eastern European composers, especially Janáček and Bartók, and the musicians’ natural feeling for the Czech composer’s ever-shifting musical style comes through vividly. As Janáček 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.

Harvey Steiman

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