Pianist Wu Han

By Scott MacClelland

IN HER FOURTH APPEARANCE for the Carmel Music Society, pianist Wu Han performed two works: Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons and Schubert’s last piano sonata, completed two months before his death at age 31. It may be hard to figure, but this legendary chamber music artist (co-artistic director of Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and Music@Menlo) has only recently shifted up her solo career.

While the enthusiastic audience on Sunday in Carmel was disappointingly small—less than half a house—the event was eagerly awaited. From the piano bench, Wu Han spoke engagingly and personally about learning the Tchaikovsky as a young student, expressing how the work for her remains emotionally close to the surface.

While both works, the first lasting about 40 minutes, the second 45, were committed to memory, she chose to keep an iPad propped up in front of her. So, should its technology suddenly fail in mid-performance—a recent horror story I read—no worries.

The piece was composed across the months of the year for subscribers to a monthly magazine, a fortuitous project that provided the composer with a regular if short-lived income but also brought his name to the attention of a much larger audience. Each ‘month’ comes with its own seasonal subtitle. Best known is the June (Barcarolle), followed by the last three months of the year: October (Autumn Song), November (Troika) and December (Christmas.) All are tuneful miniatures of sentimental cast. That they inspired memories of her childhood added to the artist’s survey.

But the Schubert plumbs an entirely different depth, the work of a man who seems to be negotiating the terms of his imminent death with death itself. In a way, I regretted that Wu Han spoke of both works together in her comments, uniting them around the well known fact that both composers were gifted with that rarest of talents: melody. It was as if Schubert knew this could only be his swansong. For all its melodies this work, seen clearer in hindsight, describes the circumstances of those ‘talks.’ A growling trill in the bottom of the piano menaces the entire 20-minute first movement, which despite the emotional charge, hews unfailingly to sonata form with utter precision. Schubert to death, “Excuse me the catharsis for a moment while I tidy up the architecture.” The remaining three movements enlarge on the moods of the first. The second, Andante sostenuto, remains deeply circumspect. The third, Scherzo, makes sardonic comment. The finale, Allegro, features a tolling bell as a counter to the growling trill of the first movement. That leaves a dimension of discovery that can only be refined by sensitivity to contextual nuance and tradition. Gemütlich, untranslatable from German to English, has often been explained, in the simplest terms, as cozy, genial and friendly. In Austrian music however it connotes something different, a fragile balance between lilt and lightness of texture. Think of a soufflé eager to please. Wu Han didn’t exhibit a feel for that character, There were moments when she muscled up too brusquely, notwithstanding her otherwise completely legitimate account of the work. Trying to distill a dying man’s emotional turmoil cannot be easy, unless and until one comes face to face with his or her own mortality.

Her encore, ill-advised after the Schubert, was Granada by Isaac Albéniz. Meanwhile, Wu Han is slated to return to Carmel with string musicians for the Carmel Music Society in an upcoming season.