April 29, 2014 - Intimate may not be the first word one thinks of to describe Harris Theater, but in the hands of pianist Wu Han and her husband, cellist David Finckel (the recently retired cellist of the acclaimed Emerson String Quartet), the 1,525 seat space felt like a salon style gathering amongst the closest of friends. Co-artistic directors of The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center (CMS) since 2004, Wu Han and Finckel bring a passion and dedication to the performance and understanding of the chamber music repertoire that is downright infectious. Prior to the performance, chatting and smiling from the piano bench with an ease that is too often exempt from classical performances, Wu Han gave a brilliant sales pitch for both the CMS residency at Harris Theater and the cello sonatas they performed, explaining some of the features that the audience should watch for during the course of the evening in what amounted to verbal program notes.

The singular pleasure of hearing all five of the Beethoven cello sonatas during the course of an evening is that you can listen to them in the course of one evening—a veritable tour of Beethoven’s compositional styles throughout his career, generally categorized as early, middle, and late. As Wu Han noted, it would be impossible to listen to all the symphonies, or even piano sonatas in one sitting, but the cello sonatas offer a “Reader’s Digest” glimpse since the first two were written around 1796, when Beethoven was in his mid-twenties; the third after he began to lose his hearing in 1808; and the final two in 1815, twelve years before his death.

Wu Han and Finckel offered tremendously energetic, striking renditions of the sonatas, and it was quite clear that these works are well loved by both players. They obviously relish performing them. Undeniable, too, was their tremendous skill and control at their respective instruments. Wu Han’s dexterity and Finckel’s depth of tone injected beautiful luminosity into the music, and their observation of silences—the crisp starts and stops where rests occurred—lent a liveliness and playfulness that was remarkable. That neat sharpness was evident in even the smallest details, such as grace notes that were not simply tossed off casually, but pushed through vigorously as if launching from a pole vault.

If the performance lacked anything, it was some unpredictability and effort, two elements that, curiously, can enhance the music of Beethoven, who was volatile in personality and musicality, and for whom effort was sometimes nearly as integral to expression as the notes themselves. Anecdotes of musicians complaining to him about difficulty abound, and as Daniel Barenboim has noted regarding the piano sonatas, “The effort is an integral part of the expression.” The trick, then, is to find the counterpoise of virtuosity and transparency, where the impressive execution still allows the audience to palpably feel the physical labor of production. Ironically, for Beethoven, the flip side of being so talented is sometimes making things look a little too easy.

Classical Music Review:

By Kathryn Bacasmot

Chamber Music Society Shares Exemplary Cello Sonatas with Harris Theater Audience

Co-artistic directors of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center David Finckle (cello) and Wu Han (piano).