Wu Han and David Finckel serve up a fascinating Beethoven journey
For the final concert of their annual residency at the Harris Theater, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center offered cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han, co-artistic directors of the Society, in a substantial evening’s endeavor Tuesday night – a complete traversal of the five cello sonatas of Beethoven.
The works are spread out among three distinct periods of the composer’s life and offered ample and inspired musical variety. The performances were of the highest quality so the rewards for the patient listener were abundant. The program lasted nearly two-and-a-half hours, but the concert unfolded so smoothly that there was little opportunity for tedium to set in. The extroverted Wu Han provided just enough commentary to keep the audience focused on the many felicities of the scores.
The first two sonatas date from 1796 and were polished off briskly and stylishly by the artists who demonstrated fluency as well as an ability to breathe together, which made for an engaging experience of this courtly music. At the same time they dug into the implied drama where the music required, especially in the Second Cello Sonata, which foreshadows the Beethoven to come.
The Third Sonata, Opus 69, is an outlier, dating from 1809, composed during the composer’s most productive period. In this work, Romantic themes abound and the cello takes command, asserting a more robust equality with the piano than in the preceding two works.
The first movement of this work is lyrical and dramatic with a deeply-felt opening theme and a richness of scoring that is almost orchestral. The cellist and pianist performed as one with an understanding born of long familiarity with Beethoven’s music.
Wu Han and Finckel signaled the second movement with an emphatic pause before beginning a short, elegant and classically refined bridge, which reached out expectantly to a rollicking and virtuosic finale, handled with exuberant brio.
The last two sonatas, Opus 102,written in 1815, are among the later visionary works created by an emotionally burdened composer who had little to lose in breaking the bounds of existing Classical forms. Knots of themes and dark phrases erupt in these probing works. The extreme contrasts, abrupt changes in tonality and fierce punctuations were put across with committed advocacy by both musicians.
The last sonata is the crowning achievement of Beethoven’s work in this genre. After an almost classically restrained opening there follows a dark, funereal section that offers some of Beethoven’s most transcendent music. The vigorous and energetic fugal Allegro concluded the evening’s adventure in rousing fashion.
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