Arts & Events

New: Cellist David Finckel and Pianist Wu Han at Hertz Hall

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Sunday March 18, 2018 - 09:18:00 PM

On Sunday afternoon, March 18, the husband-and-wife team of David Finckel and Wu Han performed a chamber music concert at Hertz Hall. They explored the cello and piano repertory from Beethoven to Lera Auerbach, that is, from 1796 to 2002, with stops along the way for works by Mendelssohn and Grieg as well as a 1998 work by Bruce Adolphe premiered by Finckel and Han.  

The program began with Beethoven’s Twelve Variations in G Major on “See the conqu’ring hero comes” from Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus. Beethoven, a great admirer of Handel’s music, composed these twelve variations in 1796, perhaps as a tribute to King Friedrich Wilhelm. Pianist Wu Han opened with the first variation, then was joined by David Finckel on cello in the second variation. The third variation features the pianist’s right hand. A dark mood prevails in the fourth variation, and next comes a coy dialogue for cello and piano, expertly rendered by Finckel and Han. Variation VI is full of counterpoint; while Variation VII features a virtuoso run for the cello, brilliantly performed by David Finckel. Variation VIII reveals Beethoven in his stormy persona, with Wu Han pounding out the tune in chords against wild scales. Next comes a change of mood to childlike innocence. Variation X is all about heroism in a nod to Handel’s aria title. Variation XI is an extended slow movement; and Variation XII, the finale, is a light and lively dance tune in triple meter. David Finckel and Wu Han performed this work with exquisite finesse and technical brilliance; and their timing was well coordinated. 

Before performing the next piece, Taiwanese-American pianist Wu Han spoke about the origins of the next works we would hear. At the La Jolla Summerfest of 1988, James and Lois Lasry announced that they would commission a work for cello and piano to be premiered by David Finckel and Wu Han. Bruce Adolphe spoke up and was awarded the commission. The resulting piece, entitled Couple, was inspired by the married couple of David Finckel and Wu Han, who premiered it at La Jolla in 1999. In four movements, Couple begins in a restless and mercurial mood. The second movement is both dreamy and ecstatic. The third movement, the highlight of the work, is full of mystery and introspection. As played by Finckel and Han, this slow movement glowed with inner light. The fourth and final movement is an outgoing scherzo full of fun and games. This work by Bruce Adolphe is a real showcase for Finckel and Han; and they performed it brilliantly. 

The first half of the program closed with Sonata No. 1 for Violoncello and Piano by Lera Auerbach. Composed in 2002, it was premiered by Finckel and Han at Hancher Auditorium, University of Iowa in 2003. This is a brooding, agitated work. Lera Auerbach reports that while composing it she was reading the novel Demian by Hermann Hesse, and she suggests that the opening movement’s music was thought of as a dance for the mysterious god Abraxas who combines in himself both good and evil. In the second movement, the piano offers a choral progression while the cello plays a free-standing melody. The third movement unfolds as a toccata with fiery syncopations and frenetic energy. Auerbach deems the fourth and final movement perhaps the most tragic piece she has ever written. She likens it to a person standing on a cliff looking into an abyss, utterly alone, devoid of both past and future. Yet out of this, Auerbach claims, beauty and meaning can be found, “aching to be freed.” Whether they are found remains a question. The piece pushes both cello and piano to the extremes of their registers; and it ends in barely audible notes.  

After intermission, Finckel and Han returned to perform Felix Mendelssohn’s Lied ohne Worte/Song Without Words in D Major for Cello and Piano, Op. 109, and, to close the program, Edvard Grieg’s Cello Sonata in A minor, Op. 36. The Mendelssohn Song Without Words is a lovely, flowing piece of gorgeous melody. The cello opens with a lyrical theme elegantly accompanied by the piano. However, the piano suddenly turns turbulent half-way through this piece, but the peaceful opening theme returns, and all’s well that ends well. 

Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg’s Cello Sonata in A minor is a stormy piece. In fact, there is not one but two storms that roar up in the opening movement; and one can picture the North Sea waves sweeping over the deck of a Norwegian ship amidst howling winds. All this is evoked with crashing chords and octaves. Even the coda drenches us and blows us hither and yon. The second movement, however, brings us peace and harmony, as the piano opens with a poignantly beautiful chord progression, and the entrance of the cello brings us the warmth of the sun. The gorgeously simple melody unfolds with rich harmonies. Just as we settle in, however, a brooding theme takes over, and violent outbursts occur, and the pianist thunders away on the poor piano. Then, a faint pianissimo reminds us of the peaceful opening theme, and, sure enough, the mood shifts, as the first theme is now heard in an ever richer harmonization.  

The third and final movement offers folk-style dance music. However, a ghostly cello theme bridges from the slow movement, and this haunting little melody will be heard later. Midway through this movement, another storm erupts, and this one is an all out hurricane. Blasts of wind shake us to the core, and the storm won’t let up! Finally, salvation comes in the form of the ghostly cello theme that opened this movement, now fully harmonized. A recapitulation follows, and a coda offers the haunting cello theme at its grandest, as the work comes to a triumphant close. Thunderous applause greeted David Finckel and Wu Han as they stood to take their bows after this thunderous Grieg Sonata for Cello and Piano. 

For an encore, Finckel and Han played the slow movement from Chopin’s Cello Sonata in G minor, Op. 65. After the sound and fury of the Grieg, this Chopin brought the afternoon to an exquisite close.