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From Beethoven With Love

Wu Han and David Finckel

October 10, 2010

Cal Performances

It seemed an exciting if daunting prospect: hearing all of Beethoven’s cello sonatas at one sitting. Chamber music has a way of enlivening performers and audiences, and of inspiring them in ways that the solo and concerto literature, with its focus on the individual artist, often can’t. Sunday afternoon at Hertz Hall, Cal Performances gave us the chance to witness Beethoven’s development from kid-wonder to the visionary master he was to become. As we braced ourselves for this two-hour musical journey with David Finckel and his wife, the pianist Wu Han, as our excellent guides, my 13-year-old cellist colleague and I contemplated our individual strengths and which of the sonatas we might get to tackle first.

From the first notes, we knew it would be a difficult choice for the performers. Each of the sonatas was so unlike the other, so unlike any other music ever written for those instruments. One might say that Beethoven brought the cello and piano into a true relationship of equals. The five sonatas span 20 years, from his first maturity when he was expanding the language of Haydn and Mozart to that mystical world we reverently (or derisively) call “late Beethoven.” In the middle period strides the unrivaled giant who composed the masterpieces that make up the classical canon that comprised the standard repertoire of musicians in succeeding generations.

Finckel and Han are well-known as directors of two of the top chamber music organizations in the country, [email protected] here in California and the Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society in New York City. How do they manage to wear all these hats and still play so well? They showed us the secret of their success on Sunday: They have remained amateurs, in the true sense of the word: They love what they do and they share it with their audiences. What these superb instrumentalists are about is making music greater than the sum of its parts. They know the challenges involved, and know how to turn them to advantage.

Make no mistake, they are complete professionals with dazzling command of their instruments. There could be no doubt of this, from the way they played the unabashedly brilliant early sonatas Opus 5. Here Beethoven shows why he was in demand as a piano soloist before his increasing deafness curtailed his performing career. Finckel and Han played with just the right combination of abandon and care, paying as much attention to the dramatic pauses as to the tumultuous cascades and swirling arpeggios in the Allegro molto piu tosto presto section of the G-minor Op. 5, No. 2. Indeed, after it there came an almost palpable sigh of relief as the audience and performers paused to catch their breath.

But it was so much more than virtuosity that brought Beethoven to life. Finckel plays every note of the cycle from memory, freeing him to listen to Wu’s playing, which was a marvel in itself. Beethoven never forgot how to challenge the pianist, and composed passages in these sonatas that require a pianist who is up to the Waldstein or Appassionata sonatas. But more than that, the music requires an ability to interact and play off each other. It was this that the Finckel/Han duo did to perfection. It was marvelous to watch, as well as to hear, the way the musical ideas flew back and forth between the two players, as in the A-major Sonata, Op. 69, where a musical interchange or particularly responsive turn of phrase would provoke an almost imperceptible smile of acknowledgment between them. Thus a drama of mutual encouragement and challenge proceeded, leading from intimacy to confrontation and through everything in between. The syncopations, which Han described as “tipsy-toesing” through the slightly mad scherzo of that work, showed the fine line between humor and seriousness in this music.

Words Falling on Young, Eager Ears

I must add a word about the mostly informative, engaging words spoken by Wu Han between the sets, while Finckel (who had contributed excellent program notes) silently fingered passages on his cello, looking as if he just wanted to just get on with it. My young cellist friend remarked several times how the commentary helped her to understand some of the stranger passages that we were about to hear. Han, dressed to the nines in a Frieda Kahlo caftan, was an excellent MC when describing the two sonatas. Op. 102, she declared, was a “cake” dedicated to the Countess Erdödy for her birthday (she was one of the few pianists whose playing Beethoven esteemed).

This showed a side of the composer that we don’t usually associate with such a self-willed genius, while alerting us to the humor that was a necessary weapon Beethoven used in his fight to remain faithful to his creative mission, even as his music found little understanding in his later years.

The first of the two sonatas begins with a deceptively directionless dialogue, then finally launching a powerful unison-octave theme of the Allegro, proclaiming, “The heroic Beethoven is back!” But after a return to the meandering material, the finale once more catches us off guard with a riot of false or “missed” entrances where Beethoven challenges the players to avoid playing the theme exactly together. Similarly, the heartbreaking Adagio of Op. 102, No. 2, is interrupted by a fugue played with a wit and lightness that a listener would never have expected. As played by Finckel and Han, it sounded like an elegant, neo-Baroque dance, merely warming up before Beethoven took off the gloves and composed the “Hammerklavier” and “Grosse” fugues. Beethoven seemed to be having the time of his life here, as did the players and their audience.

Jerry Kuderna is a pianist who gives lecture/recitals every Friday at the Berkeley Arts festival.