David Finckel & Wu Han;
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
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
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
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.