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Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Restless Journey

AS THE RONDO of Beethoven’s Cello Sonata No. 2 percolated along, delivering one surprise after another, it seemed as if David Finckel, the cellist, and pianist Wu Han were discovering the quirks anew. Certainly Finckel – who played this recital of all five Beethoven sonatas from memory and thus had no sheet music obscuring his face – was a study in merry aspect, and Han took many an opportunity to cast an amused glance over her shoulder.

David Finckel and Wu Han
So why aren’t the earlier-written violin sonatas this much fun? Beethoven’s first three violin-and-piano works were written in 1798 and follow Mozart’s model (Haydn almost ignored the pairing) with flashes of Beethovenian wit. But the first two cello sonatas, which date from 1796, are almost without precedent.

The cello was one of several low-voiced instruments thrown into the role continuo-sustainer, especially needed when the plucky harpsichord was articulating the chords. Although earlier violin sonatas tended to throw the fiddle into accompanist mode, the cello was a slave to that identity. Until Beethoven. 

It wasn’t so much a huge step as a significant one, and the halting, harmonically shifting opening of that first sonata seems to suggest that the composer was seeking a fresh approach. The Sonata No. 1 is in the key of F Major, giving the cello the chance to show off its timbre by hanging whole note on the open C string (the dominant note of the scale and the instrument’s lowest tone) towards the end of the opening Adagio.

Towards the end of the development section of the Allegro that follows, that low C is again featured, this time with the repeated fillip of a quick D-flat, as if to undermine the richness of that voice – with the C then stuttering into four whole measures of D-flat before re-asserting itself, a few bars later, into a beautiful peal two octaves up. Beethoven clearly knew how to bring out the unique sound of the instrument, and even began to allow it to approach a respectable level of partnership with the piano – keeping in mind that he wrote those first two sonatas knowing he’d be at the keyboard for their premiere, and the piano part bubbles with youthful showiness.

This marathon concert of all five sonatas, performed last Sunday at Union College’s Memorial Chapel (bringing us to the halfway point of the current concert season there) is a tour of Beethoven’s compositional progression. He’d found his unique voice by the time of the third sonata, written in 1808. It’s the most often performed of the set, and sometimes marred for that reason by injecting too much profundity into the performance.

Finckel and Han let the remarkable aspects of the work speak for themselves. There’s a transcendence that comes into play when you honor the notes on the page – and the accompanying interpretive suggestions – without layering grandiose effects of your own. In this case, there was a solidly Classical-era feel about the performance, all the better for Beethoven’s rebelliousness to shine through. Interpretively, there’s a crescendo from piano to fortissimo just before the repeat of the Rondo’s first section so skillfully achieved that it was almost chilling in its effect.

Although only seven years separate the fourth sonata from its predecessor, it sings of a whole new world. No longer a performing pianist, Beethoven is writing for an imaginary partnership, and a full partnership it is by now. The cello kicks off the strange, sweet Andante that leads to an Allegro of brash contrast. It’s in a C Major haunted by its relative minor, a piece that relies on the lyricism Finckel gave to its cantabile moments and the contrasts he and Han achieved throughout. They’ve done this many times before – the recorded the set over fifteen years ago – but, like the best stage actors, share a sense of discovering each moment afresh.

Speaking of cantabile moments: there’s no slow movement in any but the last of these pieces. Each of the ten violin sonatas has one, and the piano sonatas abound with Adagios and Andantes that defy the percussive nature of the instrument. So it’s an extraordinary moment when the cello gets its first trip into Adagio-land, and it’s a plaintive, affecting, almost funereal ten minutes. Although the piano first offers the espressivo theme that characterizes the movement, it is taken by the cello and spun into a profound journey that transformed Memorial Chapel into a place of hushed expectancy (quite a feat, given the fits of coughing, sneezing, and throat-clearing that punctuated the music throughout).

Then it sneaks into a fugato finish with an offhand casualness about it, a musical shrug, an endearing way to wrap it up. Beethoven may never have imagined a concert like this, yet the brilliant performances turned the program into an intimate biography that showed us a brilliant, innovative, restless man whose chamber music is every bit as special as the more familiar symphonic stuff.

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