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Fine Choices and Playing from Finckel/Han


David Finckel’s and Wu Han’s two hour recital for Rockport Chamber Music Festival Sunday gave an enraptured audience a chronological survey of the cello and piano repertoire, though strictly speaking, it began with music for different instruments.

J. S. Bach’s Sonata for Viola da Gamba and Keyboard No. 1 in G Major, BWV 1027, composed sometime between 1736 and 1741 is an Italianate sonata da chiesa as well as a rearrangement of one of Bach’s own earlier trio sonatas. It premiered in Leipzig under the auspices of the Collegium Musicum—most likely in Zimmermann’s coffeehouse. While well-known, I think this music is heard less often than it was a generation ago. One deterrent is the issue of instrumentation and historically informed performance practice; is this limited to gambists and harpsichordists and should it be presented in a Baroque style? We heard it with vibrato on modern set-up cello, modern bow, and Steinway grand piano (Wu Han reading from an iPad and using a bluetooth foot pedal for page turns, no less); purists may cringe but the music still qualifies as “the loveliest, the purest idyll conceivable,” as the early Bach biographer Philipp Spitta put it. This was a forward-looking, modern reading. The music retained a Baroque form with its structure and fugal passages, but the phrasing was more Classical veering into Romantic: executed with a pause only between the second and third movements, this was a re-animation of J. S. Bach’s music deploying the full sound and tonal possibilities of modern instruments. The Andante flowed like the wave in Sandy Bay visible behind the performers.

We moved forward in time to Beethoven’s Sonata For Piano and Cello No. 4 in C Major, Op. 102 (1815). The opening Andante looked back to Bach with its melodic turns of phrase (and indeed the recurrence of the sonata da chiesa form), while the succeeding Allegro vivace quickly became quintessentially Beethovenian. The Adagio had an elegiac character, seemingly expressing a nostalgia for music past. The contrapuntal writing in the fourth movement, also Allegro vivace, recalled the way Bach’s cello suites use a melodic instrument to articulate multiple voices.

The first half concluded with Felix Mendelssohn’s Sonata no. 2 in D Major, op. 58 (1843), the next step after Beethoven in what now seemed a logical progression, thanks to the history of the development of the cello and piano sonata. Here classicism meets full-throttled romanticism while still looking backwards to Bach. The second movement Allegretto scherzando anticipates Brahms while the finale, Molto allegro e vivace, ends with a return to a more Classical vein.

Following intermission, the players returned to present Claude Debussy’s Sonata in D Minor (1915); their wide dynamic variation and sudden changes in character made this music new again. They brought out the rhythmic elements, not just the flowing phrases. Jazz-inflected pizzicato riffs from Finckel reminded us of the innovations at work when Debussy composed; I even heard intimations of Villa-Lobos, a connection I had never contemplated.

The last work was Benjamin Britten’s Sonata in C Major for cello and piano, Op. 65 (1961). The opening Dialogo begins as a stilted conversation which slowly heats up. The Scherzo: Pizzicato was charming and virtuosic, as extended instrumental technique was made to look natural and easy. The Elegia hearkened back to lush romanticism before the writing turned to the rough-hewn lyricism of Shostakovich. The Marcia was upbeat and walked into the finale, Moto perpetuo, a torrent of notes that managed to remain stately even as it swerved through different moods and syncopated rhythms.

David Finckel engaged his cello with an enviable ease and mastery, producing a full panoply of tones and colors, while Wu Han drew a correspondingly broad palette from the piano. Theirs is a nuanced collaboration, the focus shifting by turns from one part to the next as the music demanded.

As fine as the musicmaking was, what made this concert so unique was the fascinating interplay among works which, with the possible exception of Britten’s, are canonical and familiar. Thematic overlap and musical connections sprang often to the fore and informed the readings in this smartly chosen program. Yes, the recital was a history lesson, but what a marvelously invigorating history it was.

In the encore, the heretofore absent Russians made their appearance in the form of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Prelude, Op. 23, No. 10. Written for solo piano, this transcription (which I presume is by Gregor Piatigorsky) brought the evening to a delightful close.

Cashman Kerr Prince, trained in Classics and Comparative Literature, is now a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Classical Studies at Wellesley College.  He is also a cellist of some accomplishment, currently playing with the Brookline Symphony Orchestra.

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