The ebullient duo of cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han has performed on the International Festival of Chamber Music series at Union College’s Memorial Chapel fifteen times. On their 16th visit on Sunday afternoon, they brought along violinist Da-Hong Seetoo.
Seetoo is better known as a Grammy Award-winning recording engineer who regularly works with the Emerson String Quartet, the New York Philharmonic and on the duo’s own ArtistLed recordings. But Seetoo’s big secret, Wu Han told the large crowd before the performance, is his incredible violin playing. He got to show that off in two pieces: Shostakovich’s Trio No. 1 in C minor, Op. 8 and Tchaikovsky’s Trio in A minor, Op. 50.
Seetoo’s participation was a special honor for Finckel and Wu Han, she said. Finckel obviously agreed as he often smiled at Seetoo during the performance.
They began with the Shostakovich Trio. The one long movement was written in 1923 when the composer was 16. The blend of haunting barren landscapes, percussive forceful passages and a beautiful lyricism were already present, hinting at the greatness to come.
The trio had barely played a page when one of Seetoo’s strings broke. After a quick repair job backstage, they began again. Finckel played with a big, rich tone, much subtlety and smooth fluid lines that sang. Seetoo played with conviction and feeling and showed a sensitive ear to balances with Finckel. Although his technique seemed facile, errant pitches occurred. That inconsistency righted itself more or less by the time Seetoo got into the Tchaikovsky, where one could hear him play passages of striking brilliance.
Meanwhile, Wu Han was doing an expert job with the trio’s balances and with playing finely wrought phrases.
Shostakovich’s Sonata for Cello and Piano in D minor, Op. 40 was masterfully written for both instruments. It’s also very much filled with a young man’s passion. Shostakovich was 27, married and with a mistress he was mad about. Throughout the work’s four movements, there are big cello statements with beautifully arched melodies and broad swaths of virtuosic demands, much intensity, mysterious atmospheres, playful tinkling piano sections, a punny jokester, and fiery technical moments.
Finckel and Han captured all this with exuberance and superb colorful abandon. Balances were always careful, connections between the players were subtle and the energy never slackened.
After a long breather of an intermission, they played the Tchaikovsky trio. Although there are only two movements, the work is almost an hour long. The first movement has often repeated luscious melodies that build to big waves of sound, climax and then begin again. The players used a wide dynamic palette that made things interesting.
The other movement is a theme with 12 diverse variations that include a fugue, a delightful swirling waltz, a Chopinesque mazurka, and dark or delicate, expansive or fiery virtuosic displays.
The performers played with great intensity, delight, commitment and a concentrated passion that was as impressive as their technical brilliance.
The crowd responded with great whoops of pleasure.