The Harris Theater marked its milestone 15th anniversary with a memorable performance by both artistic directors of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. Pianist Wu Han and her husband cellist David Finckel offered refined and moving, if occasionally flawed, performances of three standard works from the cello/piano repertoire.
The evening opened with a slideshow of Harris Theater’s high points and a heartfelt introduction by Joan Harris, who, with her late husband, philanthropist Irving Harris, played a leading role in the establishment of the theater in Millennium Park that bears their name. She recalled the history of the theater and fondly listed its many accomplishments and contributions to Chicago’s artistic landscape. Having enjoyed many excellent concerts there, this reviewer, who is unrelated to the Harrises, is grateful for the hard work that Joan and Irving Harris put in to make this space happen.
Harris then introduced Wu Han and David Finckel, who five years ago joined his wife at the Chamber Music Society following a 35-year career with the Emerson String Quartet. He plays with a distinctive style that focuses more on purity of tone, minimizing the raspy timbre of the cello. The pureness of his tone means that, when a melody starts on the cello but ends on the piano, it is not always clear where he ends and she starts. For her part, Han has a very lively and lyrical piano performance style. Her hands seemingly float over the keyboard, creating a sound that is airy and light. Their marriage of over 30 years translates into a magical stage presence and acute ensemble awareness that makes the music mesh wonderfully.
The concert started with a lovely performance of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Cello Sonata No. 3 in A-major, Op. 69. Among the many works Beethoven wrote for the duo combinations of cello/piano and violin/piano, this is the only one that hails from that composer’s revolutionary middle period. As such, it reflects the expanded proportions that Beethoven applied to the classical structures he inherited from Haydn and Mozart, and it also creates levels of emotional intensity that had previously been unheard of in music. Better still, it happens to be the best of the five sonatas Beethoven ever wrote for cello and piano.
Finckel’s pure sound worked wonderfully to create the warm opening melody, which Han soon joined with in her very flowing style. Their interplay came across marvelously as the melodies traded back and forth effortlessly. They also honored the composer’s repeats, which helped them here. In the first run through of the opening section, Han missed some notes in a couple of runs, and a few of Finckel’s high notes seemed ever so slightly flat. These issues were completely resolved in the repeat.
While the opening movement is very introspective, the second movement is a bit more strident, starting with sharp chords in the piano and firm strokes on the cello. Han and Finckel effortlessly handled the contrasting moods, as demonstrated in fun interplay in the middle section. Their rendition of the finale, with its lovely melody on the cello played over rapid chords on the piano, made for a magical finish.
Following the Beethoven was Johannes Brahms’ Cello Sonata No. 1 in e-minor, op. 38. This is one of a handful of works that has a special resonance with this reviewer. The opening movement, while labeled a fast Allegro non troppo, has the feeling of a slower, meditation. Over very sparse and syncopated piano chords, the cello wails out a mournful lament that oozes with passion and feeling. Most of the time, the cello moans the melody as the piano offers kind support, but, as the main sections come to an end, the piano offers comfort with a more hopeful tune, soon joined by the cello, an effect magnified as the movement wraps up. It’s a perfect set-up for a married couple to negotiate: Finckel shares pain, Han provides comfort.
The problem was, Finckel opened louder than the quietness called for in the score. He also applied a very heavy and textured sound, instead of a more tender approach produced by the pure tones he typically makes. It lacked the plaintive feel that gives the opening movement so much soul. Better would have been the warmth he used to open the Beethoven. It was still a good performance, but it did not resonate in the way this reviewer has come to appreciate with this music.
Things definitely turned around in the fast middle movement and the finale, which was especially memorable. It opens with a three-voice fugue, the melodies of which Finckel and Han perfectly captured. They wonderfully gave it the feeling of a chase, all the while finding the tenderness in the more reflective moments.
The second half of the concert was devoted to a later work by Felix Mendelssohn, Cello Sonata no. 2 in D-major, op. 58. Some of Mendelssohn’s most well known works, such as the Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture and his Octet were written as a teenager. Yet, this sonata, written 15 years later, has a remarkable frolicking and youthful feel that pervades throughout. It has a completely different sound from the Beethoven and Brahms, amplified by the sunny key of D-major.
Han and Finckel took full advantage of this joyful palette, from the opening pulsing chords on the piano overlaid by an eager melody on the cello. They marvelously played off one another, seamlessly trading the melody and back-up roles.
This piece has something rare in cello sonatas, a slow section designated as full-blown movement. In reality, it is little different from a more common slow introduction to a faster movement, which, in this case, is the finale. The slow movement starts with a series of rolling chords that simply oozed from Han’s fingers. Finckel offered the perfect melodic complement, all of which quickly transitioned to a rambunctious and energetic finale. Their awesome musicianship came to the fore here, with a marvelous rendering of the ribald feel.
Following a wonderfully appreciative standing ovation, Han and Finckel played an encore, the charming slow movement of Frederic Chopin’s Cello Sonata, played with the typical warmth. Even though this concert was not always to this reviewer’s tastes, it was very enjoyable.
The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center next offers at the Harris Theater Kreuzer Connection, a concert dedicated to many facets of Kreuzer in music, including Janácek’s Quartet No. 1 for Strings, The Kreutzer Sonata, Beethoven’s own Sonata in for Violin and Piano in A-major, Op. 47, Kreutzer, and Beethoven’s Quartet No. 11 in f-minor, Op. 95, Serioso. Tuesday, October 30, 2018, 7:30 pm. For ticket information click here.