Cellist David Finckel, and pianist Wu Han in recital, performing Saint-Saens’ Sonata No. 1 in C Minor. )image: OCL/Spivey Hall)

Review: David Finckel and Wu Han perform sonatas of Saint-Saens, Franck

David Finckel, cello, and Wu Han, piano

February 2, 2021
Recorded at the performers’ home in Westchester, New York, and presented via outconcerts.live by Spivey Hall at Clayton State University, Atlanta.
• SAINT-SAENS: Sonata No. 1 in C Minor
• FRANCK: Cello Sonata in A Major

Melinda Bargreen | 08 FEB 2021

Outside their living room window, past the grand piano and the cellist’s chair, you can see what looks like a rainy deck and a cluster of trees.

Welcome to the Westchester, New York, home of cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han, who were originally booked to play their recital of Saint-Saens and Franck in Atlanta’s Spivey Hall. Like so many events impacted by the current pandemic, this recital is now taking place online, with all the limitations that this implies.

But wait. That living room looks pretty welcoming, as if you were somehow invited from your own home into theirs to hear them play. Finckel and Han are chatting back and forth about the repertoire: why it’s a “French program” even though Franck was born in Belgium, and why they think Saint-Saens “leans to the past; Franck to the future.”

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Finckel is attired a conventional dark suit; Han sports a vivid green caftan, and extremely tall spike-heeled pumps that make you fear for the beautiful hardwood floor. Camera angles shift around, with close-ups of incredibly dexterous fingers on the piano keyboard and the faultless trajectory of the cello bow.

They launch immediately into the Saint-Saens Sonata No. 1, playing with the kind of security and ensemble that bespeaks long familiarity and deep understanding (of the repertoire, and of each other). Finckel occasionally glances over his left shoulder toward Han; she is facing away from him, but occasionally peeks over her right shoulder to see the trajectory of his bow, and to make even the slightest tempo change unanimous. Another quick glance exchange nails down the timing of the start of the next movement. Clearly they don’t need eye contact to establish their ensemble. Han and Finckel play with a unity established over many years.

Not surprisingly, the balances are well judged; the cello well to the front, but the piano equally assertive and all but note-perfect (even in the stormy, challenging perpetual-motion third movement). What a high-energy finale!

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The Franck Sonata, Finckel later observes in the post-concert talk, has long been so familiar to him that he can’t remember his first hearing. He wrote his own cello transcription (of the original violin solo) because of his love of the piece, a love that is abundantly clear in this radiant performance with Han.

The performance of the Franck shows all the virtues of long familiarity, and none of the drawbacks: entrances are precise, tempo changes are right on target, and the back-and-forth exchanges between the players are perfectly judged. Yet there is nothing rote or businesslike about this music – not in the delicate question-and-answer passages, or the assertive big-moment drama of the stormy second movement. There’s a dreamy, ruminative quality to the third movement, with Han judiciously applying the pedal for an occasionally hazy effect. The fourth-movement canon had the couple smiling in pleasure at a particularly nice shared phrase, and moving in perfect unison throughout that famous shared canon.

Han and Finckel know how to shape the music like sculpture: Just a slight hesitation here, a surge forward there, and a sudden pianissimo, folding the end of one phrase into the beginning of the next. This performance had all the felicities of a duo that knows all the directions and partialities of the other. There was so much to enjoy: big, stormy moments that suddenly subside; the shared canon of the famous fourth-movement melody.

Davidf Finckel and Wu Han. (courtesy of spivey Hall)

Cellist Davidf Finckel and pianist Wu Han. (courtesy of spivey Hall)

After the encore (Debussy’s “Girl With the Flaxen Hair,” made remarkable by Finckel’s amazing bow control), there was an unexpected dessert: a long-distance Q&A, hosted offsite by Spivey Hall’s executive director Samuel Dixon. The discussion was remarkable: Han’s first acquaintance with the Franck Sonata (flute version!) accompanying a Taiwan concert by Jean-Pierre Rampal when she was 21. Finckel’s great love for the same sonata (“It speaks to me in a very revealing voice”). The couple’s adventures in teaching (Han’s French teacher wanted her to create the “sound of the snow” and caress the key).

Han talked about a recent trip to Taiwan (complete with lengthy quarantine) to finally play live concerts for enthusiastic audiences; “I cried before and after, when I walked off stage – so much incredible energy was piled up, from March to November. How much we appreciate the arts now! Now, playing is a pleasure and a privilege.”

Finckel observed with amazement how the pandemic has caused “the whisking away of all the performance obligations – you don’t have to go anywhere and there is your cello, sitting there. I remind myself of why I began in music, not to become famous or applauded, but satisfying a deeper human need to live in music and to serve — a kind of a calling. I can do that with or without an audience.

“Right now there is probably more solo Bach being played in the world than at any other time.” ■

Melinda Bargreen is a Seattle-based composer and music journalist who has been writing for the Seattle Times and other publications for four decades. Her 2015 book, Classical Seattle is published by University of Washington Press. Her 50 Years of Seattle Opera was published by Marquand Books in 2014.