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S & H Festival Review

Aspen Festival 2003: David Finckel and Wu Han in Recital, July 16th 2003 (HS)

Every summer at the Aspen Music Festival, David Finckel, the cellist in the Emerson Quartet, plays a recital with his wife, Wu Han, the pianist. One year they did all the Beethoven sonatas on one program. Usually, there is a significant component of contemporary music, which the couple encourage through their leadership of the music festivals SummerFest La Jolla and Music@Menlo (in California's Silicon Valley), and their internet-based classical recording company, ArtistLed.

Such was the case for their recital July 16 in Harris Hall, which included two works written especially for them, a solo piece written for Yo-Yo Ma by John Corigliano, a bit of Janacek and one solid-gold standard, Brahms' Cello Sonata No. 1 in E Minor.

Through the evening, I marveled at two aspects of their playing. One was the utter clarity of it. You knew precisely what they wanted to say at every moment. The other point that struck me was that Finckel had memorized everything, including a work that only premiered in February and was revised late for this performance. That is not an inconsiderable point. There is a freedom and spontaneity in Finckel's playing that is a pleasure to hear. There is also preternatural accuracy. Does he ever miss a note?

Wu is an amazing pianist. A wisp of a woman who favors flowing, diaphanous shawls in rainbow colors (as she wafts onto the stage she resembles a human butterfly), she manages to draw plenty of power from the piano without losing any elegance. She does this partly with a volcanic sense of rhythm, partly by using her whole body, when necessary, to get her weight into the music. More importantly, she is a sensitive collaborator who makes musicians around her better. When she takes on Brahms with her husband, as in the program's concluding work, it is as if there were a single instrument playing (the pianello?).

At a festival where much of the contemporary music programmed repels audiences, Finckel's and Han's choices drew enthusiastic responses in this recital. Corigliano's musical language engages audiences everywhere and Fancy on a Bach Air, written in 1996 for unaccompanied cello as part of a set of variations by several composers, is no exception. Finckel played it as if it were a Bach sonata. Bruce Adolphe's Couple, a four-movement sonata written for Finckel and Han in 1998, has a playfulness and a simplicity that charms the ear. But the 2003 Cello Sonata No. 1 by Lera Auerbach is tough stuff, using microtones and hard-edged dissonances, but the young Siberian-born composer does so with a purpose, and it communicated its passion and power.

The Janacek piece, Pohádka (Fairy Tale) is a short three-movement work written in 1910 and revised in 1923. It has elements reminiscent of both his early and late string quartets. It gives both instruments a chance for wide expression, especially in assigning the cello an extensive aria-like melody.

With their clarity and assurance, ending on Brahms struck just the right balance, especially in the polyphonic finale, where at times it seemed three or four instruments were playing. The encore, the slow movement from the Chopin cello sonata, brought the evening to a gentle finish.

Harvey Steiman

Note: Harvey Steiman will be writing regularly from the Aspen Music Festival through its conclusion in mid August.



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