The new year in chamber music got off to a stellar start Sunday afternoon at Union College’s Memorial Chapel as cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han gave a concert of explosive excellence as part of the 38th International Festival of Chamber Music.
The duo presented all five of Beethoven’s cello sonatas, which made the afternoon as much an educational event as it was a satisfying musical experience. Wu Han gave the large crowd tidbits about each of the works, which explained much about why she said performing all five works on the same program was “an amazing journey.”
The sonatas are divided among three stages of Beethoven’s career. The first two were written in 1796 when he was 25 and received a gold snuff box after he and a friend played the sonatas before King Friedrich Wilhelm II, who was a cello enthusiast.
Although the technical demands were quite high for these early works, they were notable for their freshness, transparent lyricism and joyful moods.
The duo played with great vibrancy, a coordinated musical expression of convincing integrity, a shared passion, exceptional technical clarity, superior balances and pitch, and much propulsive drive. Finckel’s tone was particularly rich and singing.
Beethoven wrote Sonata No. 3 in A Major in 1808 at 38 during a golden period that also produced several symphonies, concertos and string quartets. “Every one was a home run,” Wu Han said. “We are lucky he remembered to write a cello sonata.”
The sonata’s three movements showed thrilling inventiveness, greater development of ideas and more integration between the parts. Finckel and Wu Han provided a palette that was impressive for its depth and subtlety. Differences between dynamic levels, touch, articulations and phrasing were sharper edged and more clearly defined. Colors were in many hues.
The last two sonatas were written in 1815 when, at 44, Beethoven was completely deaf. Both show off his fascination with Bach’s music, the fugue and the mystery of the stars. He was also experimenting. Moods shifted quickly and to extremes, dissonances and bits and pieces of ideas were tried and tossed, lyricism was romantic and playfulness provided unexpected relief.
Finckel and Wu Han played with much idiomatic sensibility and focus to create the rich and varied tapestry. That Finckel also played everything from memory was an equal tour-de-force.
This concert, which will be repeated in three weeks before an already sold-out crowd at Tully Hall in New York City, also marks the CD release of new music (ArtistLed) written for the duo.