perfect pair: (l-r) Finckel and Han.
From A to Z
Finckel and Wu Han
College Memorial Chapel, Jan. 3
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
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
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.