David Finckel & Wu Han duo

By Scott MacClelland

The chemistry between David Finckel and Wu Han is both palpable and inscrutable. Good thing they’re both superb musicians, yet how to imagine their lives together as a married couple of exceptional temperament? He wore formal at43022tire; she was wrapped in pink and white silk with black leggings and hot pink pumps. Okay, this is beginning to sound like tabloid gossip. Main thing, the chemistry worked marvels in Carmel Sunday afternoon, as it obviously has at Chamber Music Society at Lincoln Center and Music @ Menlo, the hugely successful festivals long under the artistic leadership of this duo.

Depending where in the Sunset auditorium you sat, balances tended to favor the Steinway over Finckel’s vintage instrument. The opening Bach Gamba Sonata in G (BWV 1027) originally used the softer-spoken harpsichord which, if anything, would have reversed the issue of balance. But somehow Bach is virtually indestructible and seems to survive intact no matter what instruments are at play. The fugue subject of the final movement worked to Finckel’s advantage.

Beethoven’s Cello Sonata in C, from 1815, comes with inherent imbalance. The deaf composer/pianist assumed the cello would hold its own, yet now and again Wu Han masked her partner. (Jokes in the middle of the last movement stood out vividly, however.) What underscored this issue would be the next piece, Mendelssohn’s splendid Sonata in D of 1834. Here, the composer took pains to make sure the cello would shine transparently and soar freely. For that reason at least, the performance made a stirring impact on an audience that included many who had never before heard the piece.

Debussy’s sonata of 1915 also revealed the sensitive ear and deft hand of its composer. Moreover, the cello part contains a range of special techniques not heard before the 20th century. The second movement, called Serenade, uses a lot of pizzicato, the better to imitate a lute or mandolin, but more insistently demanding than the gentle coaxing of a suitor below his lover’s balcony. Indeed, the finale offered up some lurid paraphrases from Salome’s Dance of the Seven Veils.

Even more special effects attended the brilliant Cello Sonata in C by Britten, one of several works (including solo suites) borne of the close working relationship the composer had with the great cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. The opening Dialogo was pestered with hocket, where each musician jumped in to finish the other’s remarks. In the Scherzo-pizzicato, Finckel plucked open strings with the fingers of both hands. An Elegia led to a weird march, almost band-like, which asked the cello for edgy metallic sounds of bowing on the bridge (sul ponticello) and high harmonic glissandos. The final Moto perpetuo saltarello was full of ambiguous harmonies and rhythmic syncopations, plus some ricochet bowing. It turned sweet for a moment just before the run-up to its ultimate exclamation point.

This was a big, ambitious program and while these two players set the bar as high as you could imagine, for me the Britten was the real climax of the afternoon, and a regional premiere to boot. Still they had energy enough left for an encore, a gorgeous arrangement for the two instruments, movingly played, of the Prelude in G-flat (Op 32:10) by Rachmaninoff.

Finckel and Wu Han are scheduled to return to Carmel with violinist Philip Setzer (former colleague of Finckel in the Emerson Quartet) at the end of the Carmel Music Society’s 2015-16 season and the start of the 2016-17 season in programs of Beethoven piano trios.