Beethoven’s Sonatas for Piano and Cello – Wu Han & David Finckel

Sonata in F for Piano and Cello, Op.5/1
Sonata in G minor for Piano and Cello, Op.5/2
Sonata in A for Piano and Cello, Op.69
Sonata in C for Piano and Cello, Op.102/1
Sonata in D for Piano and Cello, Op.102/2

Wu Han (piano) & David Finckel (cello)

Reviewed by: Violet Bergen

Reviewed: 31 January, 2010
Venue: Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City

David Finckel & Wu Han. Photograph: Christian SteinerAll of Beethoven’s Sonatas for Piano and Cello were here presented by The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.

Beethoven’s first two cello sonatas, written during a period when he was carving out a career as a pianist, have the cello in a supporting role to the virtuoso piano part. Often the cello part imitates the piano line for emphasis, with the piano dominating. The married Wu Han and David Finckel sat close to each other and had precisely-matched articulation and intonation. Unfortunately, they also had matching levels of sloppiness during fast slurred passages, which sounded uniformly mushy. Finckel had a light tone in the first two sonatas, and used a lot of vibrato. The balance with the piano was good, but his tone had a strained quality in the louder sections. The duo exaggerated dynamic contrasts, which lent a quality of excitement to the brilliant F major Sonata but seemed too melodramatic in the darker G minor one. Han’s accents were particularly harsh and heavy, and with each one equally weighted, the piece had nowhere to build up to for dramatic effect. In the imitative cello lines, Finckel sometimes added odd emphasis to certain notes, making the phrasing seem unnatural. Han’s homogenous attacks in accompanying lines made it seem like she was practicing etudes.

In the A major Sonata, written during Beethoven’s ‘middle’ period, the cello part takes on a more substantive role. Dramatic emphasis suits this work well, the piece less requiring of subtlety in structural planning from the musicians in order to provide a satisfactory performance. Finckel’s tone improved in this work, and he had more natural phrasing in the gloriously singing melodies, but Han continued to have a distractingly harsh tone, with phrasing less smooth than Finckel’s. In the scherzo, Finckel’s intonation in the sixths was faulty, and his off-beat accents were overly done. He continued to over-emphasize the accents in the finale, giving each one exactly the same weight, thus making the cello line seem predictable and boring.

The final two sonatas, from the composer’s late period, are shorter in length. The C major takes on the structure of a Baroque trio-sonata, highlighting Beethoven’s fascination with that period and enjoys unconventional harmonic progressions and unusual means of melodic development. However, Finckel and Han’s polarity of dynamics and labored, meandering phrasing suggested the piece as being too free. Finckel had an annoying tendency to add dramatic weight to the performance through grimacing facial expressions instead of through variation of bowing. In the opening movement of the D major Sonata, Finckel played the sixteenth notes with uniformly equal weight, and Han had a tendency to accent the first sixteenth in every group of four, thus destroying the impact of the real climaxes and, in Han’s case, sounding quite like a beginner. The second movement is the only proper slow movement in the cycle, yet the movement’s pathos was portrayed more in Finckel’s eyes than in his playing. The finale, a grand fugue, plodded along and sounded academic. Both performers had a tendency to have sharp intakes of breath and grossly exaggerated bodily gestures immediately before the end of each work, with Finckel practically falling out of his chair at the end of the last sonata.

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