Thursday, June 30, 2011

Dynamic duo

There's no lovelier place to listen to classical music in the Boston area than the Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport. If you doubt me, merely cast a glance northward; that's it above.  You're not always lucky enough to catch a sunset like that over Sandy Bay, but usually the music ain't too shabby (to say the least), and the famous acoustics are almost as good as the view.

So I was happy to make the trek up from Boston last Sunday to hear cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han essay a series of duets from Beethoven and Brahms.  Finckel and Han are famous as one of classical music's "power couples;" married for over twenty-five years, they are now almost as often noted for their organizational prowess as their musicianship.  They're co-directors of Lincoln Center's Chamber Music Society, and have founded a music festival and training program, They've also found time to serve as creative directors of ArtistLed Records, and of course since 1979 Finckel has been a core member of the famous Emerson String Quartet, one of the longest-lived and most widely praised string quartets in existence (they've won 9 Grammys).

The critical line on this dynamic duo (at left, in an unfortunately vampy picture that gives no sense of their actual friendly appeal) is that their long history together - along with their truly incredible musical pedigrees (multiple awards, famous mentors, you name it) has led to a sublime musical synthesis.  But I'm afraid this listener found little evidence, at least at last Sunday's concert, to support that thesis.  And I wonder a bit whether an understandable desire to approve of everything these powerful, but clearly benevolent, classical music citizens do has led to a certain critical blindness regarding their mutual artistry.

I have to say upfront, however, that Finckel was just as sublime playing against his wife as he was when I've heard him bowing with the powerhouses of the Emerson String Quartet.  He's a cellist for the ages - at times, it seems, almost the personification of a certain intellectual lyricism that flows at a high pitch (of course) through the sonatas of Beethoven and Brahms.

Han is more problematic - at least when set against Finckel.  The contrast between the two was apparent from the moment they took the stage - Finckel preferred a dark, mod look, with a dash of quirk (a red bow tie), while Han came out in a bright, billowing number sporting every color of the rainbow (with heels striped in the entire spectrum, too - I'm dying for a pair).  Finckel played from memory, while Han worked from music (even though she must know this repertoire by heart by now); Han bubbled between numbers, while Finckel kept mum.  So it was no surprise that at the musical level, these life partners seemed to approach their program from opposing points of reference - Finckel has a subtle fluidity at his beck and call, even in the most fiendishly difficult passages, while Han favors a cleaner, more declarative attack.

In theory, that opposition sounds like it should lead to exciting sparks onstage - the problem is that Han, for all her undeniable technique, seemed unable to assert a consistent musical profile to match Finckel's.  In the opening Beethoven sonata (No. 3, Op. 69), she sometimes sounded more like a percussionist than a pianist; and the Shalin Liu has a somewhat bright response to the piano (it's ideal for strings), so at least from my and my partner's seats, the balance was off throughout, and Beethoven's dancing scherzo at times sounded like a forced march. 

To be fair, Han seemed to become aware of this problem herself; she essayed the Brahms Sonata No. 1 (Op. 38) with considerably more subtlety (perhaps this shift was also due in part to the cello's more dominant role); the exquisite minuet at its core was adorable, and she and Finckel stayed in extended synch throughout the propulsive final movement.  Beethoven's variations on Handel's "Hail the Conqu'ring Hero" from Judas Maccabaeus likewise came off well, perhaps because the work is technically challenging but thematically direct. 

But in the closing Brahms Sonata (No. 2, Op. 99), Han seemed to be wandering around, which was too bad, because Finckel's reading was probably close to ideal - suggesting in that mysterious manner great players are often able to manage the contradictory qualities of Brahms: the vision cast simultaneously forward and back, the teasing tension between the ambitious and the intimate (several themes hint at motifs from larger, or even symphonic, works).  I couldn't say that the Sonata wasn't lovely to listen to; but at the same time, I had no idea what these two were getting at; and I was reminded that musical couples, at least in artistic terms, can just as often drift apart as draw closer together.  Luckily the encore represented a final upswing - a lushly rendered slow movement from the Chopin cello sonata: straightforward rapture is clearly the dynamic this duo does best.

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