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David Finckel and Wu Han at Clarice Smith

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David Finckel and Wu Han at the Library of Congress (May 1, 2005)

I know from personal experience that few things are as fun and personally satisfying as performing music with one's spouse. However, for cellist David Finckel and his wife, pianist Wu Han, to do so at such a high level must provide as much pleasure as was on their faces at a concert last night at the Clarice Smith Center in College Park. It was unfortunate for me, as far as the logistics of arriving, parking, and then leaving the University of Maryland campus, that the concert shared a time bloc with a soccer match. (The Terps beat Clemson 3-0.)

Finckel and Han designed this program, called The Unfolding of Music, which was not unlike a typical conservatory jury recital, a selection of challenging pieces in all the major common practice musical periods, from the Baroque to contemporary. (In her comments in the first half, Wu Han said their goal was "to take the audience through 300 years of music history in two hours.") The purpose of this mixture of styles is to force players to master types of music beyond their main interests, and it is intended to reveal weaknesses. While that is not exactly what happened in this concert, because Finckel and Han are both highly skilled performers, some pieces, not surprisingly, stood out more than others. On the first half, it was Beethoven's third sonata in A major, op. 69, which had an excellent combination of intellectual knowledge of form (the hushed minor key statement of the triadic second theme in the first movement leading perfectly into the recapitulation) and untempered dramatic outbursts (like the unison statement of the main theme in the coda). It was a fine performance of a delightful work.

Less outstanding, although not technically lacking, was the Baroque selection, Bach's viola da gamba sonata, BWV 1027. The adagio first movement had a nice gentle, walking tempo, and the andante third movement, one of the prettiest things Bach composed, was fragile and melancholy, but something seemed cursory and a little disjointed. The Romantic work, Schumann's Adagio and Allegro, op. 70, originally for French horn but also appropriate for cello, as indicated by the composer in the score. This performance was fiery, but sometimes Schumann's music just falls flat, with all those overwrought statements piling up, although this could as easily be Schumann's fault as Finckel and Han's. Compared to the extensive notes on the other pieces, David Finckel's short paragraphs on the Schumann describe the Adagio as "one of the most romantic (and frankly, in my opinion, erotic) partnerships between two instruments imaginable" and a "lovers' conversation." Perhaps this is something too personal for strangers.

The second half was right up my alley, however, beginning with Debussy's gorgeous late cello sonata, from 1915. The Prologue has echoes of the Cathédrale engloutie prelude, and in the Sérénade, Debussy creates a comic Spanish serenade, à la Rossini, with the cello as guitar. It's probably the "composer near death" phenomenon again that makes this sonata an autumnal masterpiece, composed by a sick man battered by the horrors of World War I. However, the highlight of the concert was Britten's Sonata in C for Cello and Piano, op. 65, another fairly late-career work, composed in 1960 for Mstislav Rostropovich, who was one of David Finckel's teachers. This sonata's Russian dedicatee apparently infected Britten with the Prokofiev bug, leading him to write a rather Russian piece, complete with a lament third movement (Elegia) and a grotesque military march. For encores, Finckel and Han continued that Russian theme, with a Tchaikovsky nocturne and a Borodin serenata, both excellent postprandial morsels. However, it was the third encore that I was really hoping to hear: the second movement of Lera Auerbach's first sonata, composed specifically for this duo in 2002. It was as thrilling as the first time I heard the work, in its entirety, in May.

See also the review by Andrew Lindemann Malone (Washington Post, September 19).

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