David Finckel and Wu Han mark Harris Theater’s 15th anniversary in Romantic style

Thu Oct 04, 2018 at 11:17 am

By Tim Sawyier

David Finckel and Wu Han performed a program of cello sonatas Wednesday night at the Harris Theater. Photo: Lisa-Marie Mazzucco

Cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han, artistic directors of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center (CMS), kicked off their group’s eighth season in residence at the Harris Theater on Wednesday night. The program comprised three 19th-century cello sonatas, which the duo delivered with panache, but that made an ironic celebration for a venue that prides itself on forward-looking programming.

The evening began with a ten-minute retrospective video about the founding, construction, and first fifteen years of the Harris Theater. The film emphasized Joan Harris’s vision of a hall that could showcase diverse programming by lesser-known ensembles from Chicago and beyond, and the protracted labors that led to its ultimate realization. Mrs. Harris herself then delivered gracious remarks about the theater staff and the artists who make her vision a reality on a daily basis.

The program proper began with Beethoven’s Sonata in A Major for Cello and Piano, Op. 69. Like most middle-period Beethoven, this 1808 work is Janus-faced—looking back to the music of the preceding century yet infused with harmonic daring and angularity that anticipates later music.

Finckel and Han projected this dual nature admirably. The cellist’s unassuming opening solo statement had an air of anticipation of the drama to unfold in the Allegro, ma non tanto, and the ensuing Scherzo was rendered with devious buoyancy. The Adagio cantabile that leads in to the closing Allegro vivace was given lyrical treatment, and the duo propelled the bustling finale to an assertive finish. Han’s bright red high heels looked great, but the clacking sound they produced when she worked the pedals or stomped at dramatic moments was an unwelcome distraction throughout the evening.

Finckel and Han readily assumed the more dark-hued character of Brahms’ Cello Sonata in E Minor, Op. 38. Finckel’s burnished tone was especially suited to the tempestuousness of the opening Allegro non troppo. Both captured the second movement’s marking of Allegretto quasi Menuetto, giving it a Terpsichorean feel while retaining a stoic expression that could not be confused for that of a literal dance. The highly contrapuntal closing Allegro is in an updated Handelian idiom, which the duo gave blistering treatment, impetuously accelerating through the closing bars to great effect.

Mendelssohn’s Sonata in D Major for Cello and Piano, Op. 58 constituted the second half, risking Romantic overkill and begging the question of whether it is possible to have too much of a good thing. Finckel and Han’s delivery was variegated enough that one did not feel any tedium, but some contrasting repertoire would have made for a more interesting program.

Felix Mendelssohn may well have been the most elegant man in Europe during his life, and Finckel and Han’s rendition of his Opus 58 captured that aspect of its composer. The Allegro assai vivace was expansive and tastefully inflected, and the Allegretto scherzando had an ambiguous Schubertian quality. Finckel’s cello affectingly sang the brief Adagio (the only real slow movement of the evening), and Han provided a strikingly sensitive accompaniment of rolled chords, carefully attuned to the underlying harmonic nuances. The closing Molto allegro e vivace was richly effervescent and brought the evening to an ebullient conclusion.

By way of an encore, Finckel and Han chose to gild the lily with the Largo from the Cello Sonata of Frédéric Chopin. The pair gave an ardent, inward reading that nicely compensated for the evening’s want of more reflective fare.

The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center returns to the Harris Theater 7:30 p.m. October 30. Pianist Juho Pohjonen, violinist Angelo Xiang Yu, and the Calidore String Quartet will perform Beethoven’s “Serioso” Quartet, Prokofiev’s Sarcasms, Janáček’s Quartet No. 1 (“The Kreutzer Sonata”), Kreutzer’s Caprice No. 35, and Beethoven’s Violin Sonata, Op. 47, “Kreutzer.” harristheaterchicago.org

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