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The perfect pair: (l-r) Finckel and Han.

Beethoven From A to Z

By B.A. Nilsson

David Finckel and Wu Han

Union College Memorial Chapel, Jan. 3

As pianist Wu Han pointed out during last Sunday’s Union College concert, we’re fortunate to have a wide chronological spread in Beethoven’s five cello sonatas. The first two, written when the composer was 25, show the first stirrings of rebellion in the context of fairly well-behaved classical pieces.

The third, which is the most famous of the three, dates from the time of the fifth symphony, fourth piano concerto and the “Ghost” Trio. The last two are the work of a 45-year-old who had lost his hearing and was about to begin work on his ninth symphony.

Which meant that we were able to enjoy a program that was at once a panorama of Beethoven’s styles and an intimate exploration of the sound of cello and piano, in the able hands of David Finckel and Wu Han, whose many visits to the Union College Concert Series have made them audience favorites.

They have long ago demonstrated the degree of technical mastery that makes all effort transparent. Add to this that Finckel played the cello parts from memory, and you can understand that the music itself would not be an issue. What we were there to witness was their unique interpretive stamp.

How far can you go with works two centuries old? There’s a seeming framework of rigidity, informed as much by decades of recorded performance precedent as by the blueprint of the score itself.

But Finckel and Han are dynamic musicians who can place a distinctive interpretive spin on a work without compromising a whit of its integrity, mostly coming down to the too-overlooked practice of giving dynamic markings their due, singing each phrase as if it had lyrics and maintaining a strong pulse throughout the piece

Which calls for a constant, moment-by-moment awareness of what the other partner is up to even as the voices sound as one. These are not histrionic performers, but the body language and eye contact affirmed a continual flow of communication.

If the first two sonatas were melodious and polite, the third, a three-movement work with a frolicsome scherzo at its center, was given an almost stormy energy. What a difference 13 years in Beethoven’s life had inspired!

It’s a remarkable piece that illustrates the composer’s mastery at weaving complex melodic and developmental sequences out of motif-like fragments, as well as creating combinations of instruments that explored what for the time was a boundaries-stretching ear for textural contrasts.

Just as remarkable are the final two sonatas. Each of the three concert segments was introduced by Han in a manner that gave both the provenance of what was about to be played as well as suggestions of what to listen for—which is very helpful information when delivered so well.

And so we have these contrasting pieces, the first relatively short and very Bach-inspired, the second most arrestingly foreshadowing the harmonic invention that would characterize Beethoven’s late quartets. Not to mention the work’s concluding fugue, which would inspire Brahms to do the same with one of his two cello sonatas.

It’s impossible to overpraise these performances. The long, ambitious program went by in a flash and brought this music to vibrant life again.

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