Classical music’s Golden Couple, cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han, thrilled a full Jordan Hall audience on Sunday, playing all five Beethoven Sonatas for Piano and Cello. I’ve seen Finckel many times: during his 34-year tenure with the Emerson Quartet in which many critics considered him the best quartet cellist around, in their trio with Emerson violinist Philip Setzer, and this duo several times as well. I am a longtime admirer of Finckel, yet it has taken me a while to warm up to the ebullient Wu Han. Sunday, she won me over, at least with her playing. She loves to talk from the stage, which I have found quite annoying. Yesterday, she thanked the audience for coming, praised the acoustics, said something about the Red Sox, and then finally talked about the music a little but too much, better for a more informal salon gathering. Celebrity Series audiences are generally a sophisticated bunch. The Celebrity Series provides superb program notes (here by Dr. Richard E. Rodda), and for a program this long, the less talking the better. (Many in the audience appear to disagree with me on this).
The effervescent Wu Han entered the stage each time like a force of nature—a vision in pink and black—long black hair, a voluminous pink gown, black tights, pink heels. The unflappable Finckel, her husband, wore a suit and bow tie. For those living on Planet Mars, let me briefly recap this powerful duo’s resumé. They were anointed Musical America’s 2012 Musicians of the Year, and run, to date, two important musical organizations. They are Artistic Directors of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, and are the founders and Artistic Directors of Music@Menlo, a chamber music festival in Silicon Valley. In 2011, they were named Artistic Directors of Chamber Music Today, an annual festival held in Korea. In 1997, they launched ArtistLed, classical music’s first musician-directed and Internet-based recording company (the recordings I’ve sampled are superb, and are available here). They’ve been, as their bio states, “passionately committed: to nurturing the careers of many young artists through an array of education initiatives.” Finckel writes a blog and also writes for The Huffington Post. He has devised, on YouTube, “Cello Talks,” 100 mini-lessons. The minute he left the Emersons, he was scooped up by Julliard, where he now teaches. I could go on, but this is a sampling of the duo’s deeds. Humbling to us lesser mortals who just play an instrument.
Beethoven’s five Sonatas for Piano and Cello, written over 20 years, act as a portrait of an artist during his three creative periods. Performed chronologically, they show the remarkable development of a composer. His early period, 1796, when he still could hear and when he was carving out a career for himself as a virtuoso pianist, is represented by his two Opus 5 sonatas, written for himself and the French cello virtuoso Jean Pierre Duport, King Frederick Wilhelm II’s director of chamber music. (King Frederick Wilhelm II also apparently played the cello quite well). Beethoven was quite the piano virtuoso himself, so was able to write and play real virtuoso parts for both instruments. His student Carl Czerny wrote that Beethoven’s playing was “brilliant and striking… He knew how to produce such an effect upon every hearer that frequently not an eye remained dry, while many broke out in deep sobs; for there was something wonderful in his expression in addition to the beauty and originality of his ideas and his spirited style of rendering them.”
The famous Opus 69 Sonata in A Major was written between 1806 and 1808, during his “middle period,” contemporaneous with his Fifth and Sixth Symphonies. Many feel it represents the first real duo for both cello and piano (rather than a piano piece with cello obbligato). Wu Han told us this was a staple of their repertoire, and the duo played it terrifically, as they did the other four sonatas. (They had played this program two other times this week and many times before that).
The two Opus 102 sonatas in C major and D major, the last of Beethoven’s duo sonatas, were composed in 1815, the beginning of Beethoven’s “late period.” The otherworldly Adagio from the D major sonata was given a particularly gorgeous performance, and the fugue (allegro fugato) that followed it got a stellar performance.
The two work brilliantly as a team. Whenever one had a solo, the other would turn his head and watch with pleasure. Their decades of experience and love for each other were obvious. Playing from heart in every sense, Finckel impresses me as the Rolls Royce of cellists. He is the perfect musical foil for Wu Han (who read the music from an IPad). Together they are a phenomenon, worth hearing every time they’re around.