David Finckel, cello, and Wu Han, piano, gave a recital of cello sonatas by Beethoven and Brahms on Sunday, June 26, in Shalin Liu Performance Center as part of the thirtieth anniversary season of the Rockport Chamber Music Festival. At first glance, one sensed that Finckel was serious, controlled, almost solemn in his approach, rather dapper, sporting a red bow tie, while Wu Han appeared flamboyant in a flowing silk robe of vibrant colors. It seemed there might be an imbalance because of this polarity, and in the first movement of the Beethoven it was sometimes hard to hear the cello in the lower register against the exuberant, high energy of the piano. But they proved adept at merging voices, seamlessly taking over each other’s lines, like a married couple finishing each other’s sentences.
Finckel and Wu Han each are masters of their respective instruments, and they were equal partners in the works that ranged from dramatic to almost silly, back to heroic. They chased each other brilliantly in the Beethoven Sonata in A, Op. 69. Wu Han had a way of smiling with mischief as she leaned over towards Finckel, and it was endearing to see him start to smile back, leaving his formal persona behind as they whirled in the moment of the music together. Wu Han spoke after the Beethoven with lively humor and interesting information about the works, charming live program notes that made us feel even more fortunate to be at this concert.
Finckel has a beautiful sound, elegant and expressive. Sometimes in the Brahms Sonata No. 1 in e minor it seemed that he needed to project a bit more, but whether that was because of the acoustics of the hall, or because his cello is angled so that the “f” holes face the ceiling, not into the audience, or because the piano was too loud, I couldn’t tell. At any rate, my ears adjusted and the subtleties and nuances of the pair more than made up for occasional unbalances between them. The end of the first movement was especially beautiful, reminiscent of Brahms’s Requiem in color and gesture, with exquisite tender playing by them both.
Sometimes the Allegretto could have used a little hesitation, more lift of the bow, a little more time spent in the air; it seemed a little straightforward. But the pair brought out the inner voices of the contrasting Allegro Quasi Menuetto so sensitively, like the ruminative Intermezzi of Op. 116, the inner voices of Brahms himself, asking whether he should wear his trousers rolled, should he part his hair behind, or dare to eat a peach… For performers, it is always a balance between “picking too many daisies,” as we say (meaning spending time on each precious phrase as we play it), or being too straight-forward — a matter of individual taste, and they certainly were convinced and convincing in their reading. In the Allegro: Piu Presto, Brahms’s writing is greatly responsible for the imbalance between the two instruments; pitting a nine-foot Steinway against a cello doesn’t seem sporting, even with these fabulous musicians.
In the second half of the program, the delightful, light variations Beethoven wrote on the Handel theme, “Hail, the conquering hero” from Judas Maccabeus, gave Finckel and Wu Han an opportunity to play with such flirtation and enjoyment that they seemed to be inventing the music in the moment and having a lot of fun doing so. At one point, the music caused a seagull to swoop down towards the stage and send a “bravo” in gull-speak. (Although well deserved, it was a little premature, coming as it did in the middle of the work.)
The concert closed with the heroic Sonata No. 2 in F Major by Brahms, written ninety years after the Beethoven variations. Wu Han told us that the music was orchestral, and certainly you could hear the horns and winds in their playing. The piece begins like Verdi’s Otello, opening mid-storm, and pulls the listener in to an emotional vortex of ever-changing color and mood. Both players played with passion and verve for a marvelous emotional ride. After a standing ovation, they rewarded the audience with the transcendentally beautiful slow movement from the Chopin cello sonata (in g minor, Op. 65), a love song, pure and simple, that we were delighted to overhear them play to each other.
Gillian Rogell, a violist, is chair of the Chamber Music Department of the New England Conservatory School of Continuing Education, and also teaches at NEC Preparatory School, the Rivers School Conservatory, and Walnut Hill School.