There was some pretty spectacular string playing during the course of the recital of cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han in Wake Forest University's Brendle Recital Hall on September 8. Indeed, this critic stared in open-mouth amazement during the playing of the last selection. Wu Han proved to be an avuncular guide to a program intended to survey three centuries of music. With examples played on the piano and terse comments, she made stylistic changes self-evident. With the widespread demise of music education in the public schools during the 1960s, such "learning moments" are justified. The hall's capacity audience included a broad range of young people and first-timers who could appreciate the "demystification."
I'm so used to hearing Johann Sebastian Bach's Sonata in G, S.1027, for viola da gamba and continuo, on original instruments that it required considerable adjustment to appreciate the very different sound world of its arrangement for cello and piano. Wu Han drew an analogy between the local coffee house where many of Bach's secular works were played and today's omnipresent Starbucks. She said these works showed Bach, the baroque composer, "having fun" within very formal musical conventions. It was delightful to hear and see the players take the lead or accompaniment in turn. The keyboard, with the lid fully up, was always perfectly balanced with Finckel's elegant singing lines. The slow movement's "p" opening was gorgeous, and a memorable moment was a long sustained cello line supporting the melody on the piano.
The duo's recording of Beethoven's complete sonatas for cello and piano – on their own label, ArtistLed – is widely considered one of the finest committed to disc. The Sonata No. 3 in A, Op. 69, the greatest of the classical period, received a white-hot reading. Finckel opened with lustrous cello tone, and Beethoven's sweeping phrases were given full rhetorical value. After the second movement's bold piano attack, the theme was taken up by the cello; the reading abounded in wide dynamic contrasts. A short but breathtaking slow movement led seamlessly to the joyful and radiant finale.
Robert Schumann's Adagio and Allegro, Op. 70 was originally composed for horn and piano. The adagio has an intertwined melody with each instrument taking it up where the other left off.
Finckel's exacting standards of intonation were evident throughout Debussy's revolutionary treatment of traditional form in the Sonata (1915) for cello and piano. This was the first of a projected set of six, but the composer lived to complete only half of them. Conventional rules of classical and romantic harmony are defied. After opening resolutely with the piano in d minor, the cello ranged across a kaleidoscope of tonal colors with some gorgeously-focused high harmonics standing out. The winning "Serenade" found Finckel strumming away, guitar-like, and demonstrating other technical tricks such as – most memorably – delicate whistling harmonics. Without missing a beat, both musicians soared away on the wings of the sunny melodies that dominate the finale.
Cold War tensions gave added importance to the friendship between Britain's foremost composer, Benjamin Britten, and the Soviet Union's foremost cello virtuoso, Mstislav Rostropovich. Their mutual admiration led to the composition of five major works for cello, the Cello Symphony, three cello suites, and the Sonata in C, Op. 65 (1960-1), which ended the formal, listed program. The first movement is often dense, its harsh episodes mixed with contrasting ones of great tenderness. I was familiar with this work only from recordings, especially the famous Decca one made by Britten and Rostropovich, so my jaw literally dropped in amazement over the course of the second movement, "Scherzo-pizzicato." Patrick Castillo's program notes mention that this movement "demonstrates the most virtuosic use of (plucked strings) in the entire cello literature." I watched in wonder at the plethora of different dynamics and sonorities Finckel conjured up by widely varied plucking of the strings when he suddenly proceeded to use both hands at the same time. This was done so fast that I failed to see how he was controlling pitch so perfectly. It was simply breathtaking. The following "Elegia" featured an achingly sad melody for cello over a spare piano accompaniment. The remaining two movements abounded in expressive use of myriad techniques – bowing close to the bridge, shrill high cat-like "meows," and some luscious tremolos. This work deserves to be a regular item on the menus of cellists with extraordinary agility; it must be seen as well as heard.
Three brief samples of Russian music reflecting sadness, bliss, and anger were given as generous encores. A lovely Nocturne by Tchaikovsky filled the first bill, while the second, a Serenata by Borodin, seemed to echo parts of his Second Symphony or gentler moments from the "Polovtsian" scene from the opera Prince Igor. Most tantalizing was a movement from a work commissioned for the duo, Russian-born Lera Auerbach's Cello Sonata No. 1. A web search will turn up the composer's website, which reveals some eight pages listing her works as well as an impressive solo and concerto repertory as a pianist. This tantalizing sample suggested that she might be one of the most promising new composers since Oswaldo Golijov.