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The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center

Tuesday, February 28th, 2006 at 7:00 PM

David Finckel, cello
Wu Han, piano


Sergei Prokofiev, Sonata in C Major for Cello and Piano, Op. 119 (1949)

I. Andante grave
II. Moderato
III. Allegro ma non troppo

Lera Auerbach, Sonata No.1 for Cello and Piano (2002)
b. 1974                (NY Premiere)

I. Allegro moderato
II. Lament (Adagio)
III. Allegro assai
IV. With extreme intensity


Sergei Rachmaninov, Sonata in G Minor for Cello and Piano, Op. 19 (1901)

I. Lento - Allegro moderato
II. Allegro scherzando
III. Andante
IV. Allegro mosso


Looking like a Bird of Paradise, pianist Wu Han, in an exotic flowing tasseled crimson
gown and stilettos, glided onto the Alice Tully stage with husband and associate, cellist David Finckel. His equally understated appearance and demeanor made the effect all the more dramatic. The rigorous schedule of this high profile duo team – they are the artistic directors of The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center – includes performances at some of the most prestigious venues across the United States, as well as regular appearances at the country’s leading music festivals, a full international touring schedule, and the launch of the first musician-directed and Internet-based recording company, ArtistLed.

Performing from memory allows an artist – some would argue – a degree of interpretative freedom unavailable when playing from music, but to be able to perform three major sonatas, including a recently commissioned and complex work all without the score, is a feat of some dexterity! (This is not to detract from the evening’s performance, which stands on its own merit). Tonight was an all-Russian affair, starting with the Prokofiev’s Cello Sonata in C Major, which was completed in 1949 and dedicated to cellist Mystislav Rostropovich. A relatively short work in three movements, this is no longer the composer of dissonances identified with his earlier output. The lyrical character of many of the themes, and the accessibility of the work was no doubt partly the result of pressure from the Soviet apparatus that was at that time cracking down on music that was considered too ‘decadent’, (using atonal devices). Prokofiev’s writing was not immune to such criticism.

David Finckel conveyed all of the warmth of the lyrical themes, starting with the deep bass sonority opening, all the while being complemented by some very sensitive partnering work by pianist Wu Han. The character of the movement was in turn impressionistic and also austere and elegiac. In the second movement both players conjured up a childlike playfulness and captured the humor and wit of the writing, which hinted at Poulenc. (They were contemporaries, and Prokofiev lived for several years in Paris.) The third and final movement develops some of the ideas of the first movement. The performance highlighted the finely written balance in the score between the instruments, and included some very effectively played harmonics and pizzicati.

Russian born Lera Auerbach’s Sonata no.1 for Cello and Piano already gives the impression of being the work of a seasoned composer with a sure sense of style, as well as a creative personal stamp. Ms. Auerbach has not only already gained recognition as a composer of merit, but is also an award-winning poet. Wu Han spoke at some length in introduction to this NY Premiere; the piece was commissioned by Mr. Finckel and Ms. Han – a process that necessarily involves, as she explained, an element of  ‘risk’. “Like a child being born, you never know how it is going to turn out!” Ms. Han went on to say that the piece was composed shortly after the tragic events of 9/11 and, being under the influence of that time, conveys a sense of inner struggle, a personal accounting, and finally the yearning to release the soul from existential suffering.

The first movement plays with the tension between good and evil, and includes a brief ‘off-beat’ waltz in 5/4. In the midst of dialogue passages and frenzied moments there were pained declamations from the cello, and a middle-eastern flavor in the harmony that reminded me of Ernest Bloch. The second movement was a lament, contrasting very low chords on the piano with extremely high writing for the cello. The third movement conveyed an obsessive energy, with cello effects close to the bridge to create an unworldly sound.

The final movement reminded me of a bee trapped in a jar (cello playing continuous quarter tone trills) – and running out of oxygen. Perhaps this was a representation for Ms. Auerbach of man’s limitations in the larger cosmic scheme? “The last movement – With extreme intensity – may be one of the most tragic pieces I have written.” (Program notes)The Spanish folk theme that appeared ‘out of nowhere’ close to the end of the work offered a glimmer of hope, a sense of connectedness with a past that still was able, perhaps, to hold meaning.

I have no doubt that Ms. Auerbach’s ability as a poet influenced the cello writing, which sounded ‘spoken’ rather than ‘sung’. Both David Finckel and Wu Han deserve credit for the energy, dedication and passion of their performance. The work certainly is effective and sounds organic. It is also able to connect emotionally to the audience and has none of the formal pretensions of some modern compositions. No doubt we will be hearing more from Ms. Auerbach in the near future.

Rachmaninov’s lovely, albeit uneven Sonata in G minor for Cello and Piano
was written on the crest of the success that followed his Second Piano Concerto. Of the four movements of this work, the third is by far the most effectively written, being in effect a ‘song without words’. The free form of this movement left Rachmaninov with a sense of compositional freedom that none of the other movements reflects. The first is effective and convincing, but both the second and final movements suffer from awkward harmonic meanderings and heavy piano writing that leaves the cellist ‘outnumbered’.

Fortunately for David Finckel, Wu Han is his equal as a consummate chamber musician, and she was quickly able to work around the pitfalls of the piano writing. As a pianist she was not only lyrical in the tender moments, but equally of steely touch in passages of dramatic tension. David Finckel, for his part, not only displayed an understanding for compositional proportion, but also is technically an accomplished cellist with an instinctive feel for using the right tools for right effect. 

For my taste the performance could have done with longer lines, and a less sweet overall approach. The opening, for example, needs to reflect a world-weariness, as well as resignation. The slow movement may have been more expansive. Both cellist and pianist were perfectly matched and explored every corner of the Rachmaninov work with commendable thoroughness, with barely a glitch by either musician throughout the entire evening. The Borodin Serenade that followed as an encore was simple, and delightful.