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David Finckel & Wu Han; Olmos Ensemble

Still more Brahms, and more

March 20, 2013

The bulk of the Brahms Festival occupied the month of February, but some welcome overflow extended into March, with important Brahms chamber works included in concerts by the Olmos Ensemble (March 11) and the distinguished cello-piano duo of David Finckel and Wu Han (March 17).

The San Antonio Chamber Music Society was the host for the latter concert, in Temple Beth-El. Ms. Wu and Mr. Finckel are co-artistic directors of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, and Mr. Finckel has appeared several times previously in San Antonio in his capacity as cellist with the Emerson String Quartet. (Ms. Wu told the audience that this was her first visit to San Antonio.)

At the center of their program were two masterpieces from the core of the repertoire -- Brahms’s Cello Sonata No. 1 in E Minor and one movement, the consoling “Louange a l’eternite de Jesus,” from Olivier Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time.” Of somewhat lesser stature were Richard Strauss’s Cello Sonata in F, a very early work heavily influenced by Mendelssohn; and Frédéric Chopin’s Cello Sonata in G Minor, a rare excursion outside the composer’s mainstay of short-form works for solo piano.

Great works can reveal themselves in radically different ways. Several years ago, in a Soli Chamber Ensemble concert, cellist David Mollenauer (with pianist Vivienne Spy) played the Brahms E Minor with huge intensity, as though there were no tomorrow. Mr. Finckel approached the same work from a nearly opposite perspective: There was an intimate restraint, a calm composure in his playing, as though to assure us that, despite sadness and troubles, yes, there is a tomorrow.

His opening statement was understated, almost reticent, but so secure in purpose (and projecting such a  lively tone) as to fully engage the listener. His mastery of the long line, in evidence throughout this concert, was especially notable in the allegretto’s trio, where he spun the long, searching melody as a single continuous thought, subtly but meaningfully punctuated.
In the Messiaen, Mr. Finckel seemed almost to disappear behind the music, which flowed as though on its own volition. No ego, infinite feeling.

Ms. Wu proved an equally formidable musician. Her Chopin was particularly colorful and energetic, she brought a wonderful delicacy to the allegretto of the Brahms, and in the Messiaen her timing and bell-like tone were impeccable. Her stylistic intelligence came to the fore in the Strauss sonata: I had never noticed before, until she made it clear in her spritely phrasing, how much certain motives in the finale anticipate the composer’s mature style from “Der Rosenkavalier” and beyond. Throughout the concert she and Mr. Finckel were in complete accord on most matters, but her rhythms were slightly more angular, adding a layer of depth to these performances.

The apex of the Olmos Ensemble’s concert, in First Unitarian Universalist Church, was Brahms's Horn Trio. Hornist Jeff Garza’s playing was as noble as the music -- no surprise there, nor in violinist Bonnie Terry’s warmth and zest, or pianist Colette Valentine’s fine sense of pulse and direction.

The very serious Brahms trio was preceded by one of the most overtly jocular -- sometimes zany --  pieces by the incorrigible Jean Francaix, His Quartet for flute (Martha Long), oboe (Mark Ackerman), clarinet (Ilya Shterenberg) and bassoon (Sharon Kuster). The performance was top-drawer all around.

The scheduled Gyorgi Ligeti Horn Trio -- an explicit homage to Brahms and a landmark in its own right -- had to be put off because of some of the musicians heavy commitments to the San Antonio Symphony. Taking its place were works by the Frenchmen Pierre Sancan and Charles Koechlin. 

Sancan’s Sonatine for flute and piano is conservative for its time (1946) but pleasing and well-crafted. The first of its three compact movements is a walk in the park, with free-flowing melody that stretches and breathes. The second includes quite a nice extended cadenza for flute. The third is jolly. The polished, crisp performance by Ms. Long and Ms. Valentine made a splendid case for it.

Koechlin’s Sonata for Horn and Piano, composed over several years following the end of World War I, was less persuasive. Even the excellent musicianship of Mr. Garza and Ms. Valentine could not clarify Koechlin’s clotted textures, especially in the first two movements. The happy-warrior finale, however, had its charms.

Mike Greenberg