Classical Music Review: Musical Power Couple Wow Rockport

This was ensemble playing by two people who knew not only the music but each other completely. There are some things you can’t fake, and one is ensemble playing with a person—or people—you love. (I speak from experience here.) Everything was perfect.

By Susan Miron

Musical Power Duo: David Finckel and Wu Han

If there were an international competition for Ebullient Power Couples in Music, Wu Han and David Finckel would win first, second, and third prize. No one else would come close. Most would leave the contest in shame.

Here is a brief list of their current activities:

Mr. Finckel is cellist of the Emerson String Quartet, winner of 8 Grammy Awards.

The two have served as Co-Artistic Directors of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center since 2004.

Last season, under auspices of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, they established chamber-music training workshops for young artists in both Taiwan and Korea.

They are founding Artistic Directors, since 2003, of the summer music festival they founded, Music @ Menlo (California), which trains young artists.

They are creative directors of ArtistLed Records, a musician-directed and Internet-based recording company that has now produced 13 CDs. I bought and listened to their Russian CD, and it is fabulous.

David recently finished his 100th “Cello Talks” video, a groundbreaking course for cellists that included, he said, “all I know about how to play the instrument.”

I have known about the greatness of cellist David Finckel since we were teenagers in New Jersey, although we have never met. I have loved the Emerson Quartet over their 35-year reign as possibly today’s greatest quartet, and their members, together since Julliard, feature Mr. Finckel as their universally admired cellist. He is a great musician, Alex Ross of The New Yorker once wrote, who could have done or been anything he wanted to do, but he chose a career as a cellist in a string quartet.

Recently, he and his wife, pianist Wu Han, have been touring, not only as a duo but as a trio with Emerson’s violinist Philip Setzer, to great acclaim. Apparently everything he and Wu Han touch turns to gold, and this concert at the Rockport Chamber Music Festival (their 3rd appearance here) was no exception.

Visually the couple are a study in opposites. The distinguished-looking Mr. Finckel played from memory, wearing a black suit, white shirt, and red bow-tie. Wu Han wore a flowing tunic of orange, purple, turquoise, and green (and matching heels). With her long, black hair flying and frequent leaning in toward the cello, she was a study of color in motion.

Twice Ms. Wu spoke enthusiastically about the pieces the pair was about to play. Audiences generally love this kind of gab, but musicians, who already generally know what they are about to hear, become fidgety; most of us just want to hear this pianist play rather than try to win us over. But this kind of chatter sells CDs, and you are warmly invited to meet the artists after the concert to buy what are, in fact, terrific CDs.

A view of the interior of the Shalin Liu Performance Center. Photo: Robert Benson

The program was meat and potatoes, musically speaking. Entitled “Great Expectations: Brahms as the Next Beethoven,” it began with Beethoven’s Sonata No. 3 for Cello and Piano in A Major, Op. 69, after which the duo played Brahms’ Sonata for Piano and Cello No. 1 in E minor, Op. 38. After intermission Beethoven’s “12 Variations in G Major on ‘See the Conqu’ring Hero Comes,’ from Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus” preceded the great Brahms Sonata for Piano and Cello, No.2 in F Major, Op. 99.

Mr. Finckel and Ms. Wu have recorded the Brahms and must have played it dozens of times, as well as the rest of this program, which was hard not to love. This was ensemble playing by two people who knew not only the music but each other completely. There are some things you can’t fake, and one is ensemble playing with a person—or people—you love. (I speak from experience here). Everything was perfect.

And yet I couldn’t get my eyes and ears off of Mr. Finckel (I have had this happen when he’s playing with the Emerson Quartet as well). He is mesmerizing because he sits very still, eyes looking into the distance as if he’s in a trance, and playing as beautifully as any cellist I have heard in my lifetime—and the cello is my favorite instrument.

The duo played on a cloudy Sunday, but this Golden Couple made it a sunny summer afternoon for those lucky enough to be in the audience.

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