Beethoven at 8,000 Feet: David Finckel and Wu Han’s ArtistLed Recording of Beethoven’s Cello Sonatas and Variations

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Wu Han and David Finckel. Photo Christian Steiner.

With David Finckel and Wu Han’s program of Beethoven Cello Sonatas at Union College coming up, I thought it a good idea to take a look at their recording of Beethoven’s complete Cello works, which I’d never heard before. I was even surprised to learn that it dates back to 1997, making it one of the earliest recordings they made on their pioneering label, ArtistLed. Like today, they functioned as the producers of the recording, and Da-Hong Seetoo, the extraordinary sound engineer, who works with personally modified hardware and software, made the recording. They purposely chose Harris Hall at Aspen, Colorado as the venue, because they were struck that its particular acoustics were ideal for recording Beethoven. “Built from wood, with a high ceiling, it has a resonance which is warm, clear and brilliant. The air at 8,000 feet is crisp, even in summer, and seems to contribute to the incisiveness of the sound. Frequently, we would arrive at the hall and set up just after a concert had concluded, the hall still buzzing with the excitement of a performance. recording at night when the world is quiet is our preference, and to emerge from the hall at 4am, bathed in the blinding, cool moonlight, was in itself an inspiring experience.” Hence the circumstances of this recording are special, and quite different from either a live concert or the recording studio, a place where, it seems, the couple venture rarely, if they can help it. This past September I reviewed both a live performance of the late Schubert Piano Trios together with their recent recording of the same music. The differences I found were striking, and by no means in favor of the live concert, as one usually expects. Obviously musicians mature over the years, even this irrepressibly youthful couple (and I may have more to say about that in discussing the Union College concert), but the differences which struck me concern more the unique circumstances of the recording. Finckel’s tone seemed lighter and more brilliant than what I’m used to hearing in recent years, presumably reflecting the sound of Harris Hall. What impressed my over all, in fact, was a feeling of lightness, even airiness, in their response to Beethoven’s high-spirited flights of invention, say in the last movements of the Opus 5 sonatas, or in the livelier variations. Wu Han’s precise articulation and split-second inflections prove an ideal support for Finckel’s Schwung in high registers.

The two Opus 5 Sonatas of 1796 are ambitious works, revolutionary in fact, as the first substantial works for cello and keyboard. Both begin with long, complex first movements with slow introductions and conclude with brief, virtuosic rondos. Beethoven composed them for a patron of the highest rank, Friedrich Wilhelm, King of Prussia, on Beethoven’s only visit to Berlin. He played the piano part himself, and the cellist was most likely Jean-Louis Duport, a member of the king’s orchestra, and a renowned virtuoso. Hence the are among the most substantial and impressive of Beethoven’s early works.

For example, in the slow introduction to the G minor Sonata, a powerful, almost tragic minor chords introduces plangent, lament motifs, which are answered by lofty consolatory phrases in the major, ending on a big major chord which introduces the descending dotted phrases of the opening, now tending towards the major. The rhythm introduces a section of great nobility, suggesting baroque pomp, which in turn leads to a deeply felt introspective interlude. This concludes with chords, separated by long pauses, which modulate into the exposition. The main part of the movement begins with a playful, but slightly melancholic subject in the minor which soon moves into unadulterated high spirits in the major. They are interrupted once or twice minor interjections of a grave severity. As the movement progresses the music oscillates among these different tonal colors and moods. Finckel and Wu Han fully encompass the emotional shifts implied by these changes. Wu Han varies from massive weight and size to delicate playfulness, and Finckel from virtuosic exuberance to lyric tenderness, beautifully expressed by the soft, luxuriant tone of his upper registers. The much briefer last movement affirms the major throughout, although a modally ambiguous theme which introduces the coda eventually reintroduces the minor, only to create a dramatic contrast for the joyful reassertion of the major key. The pair meet this not only with the requisite virtuosity, but with the unrestrained high spirits of musicians who are truly having a great deal of fun.

For many, Op. 69 will be crucial, and theirs is entirely a delight. They leaned towards the lyrical in their approach, as the sweet, drawn out tone of Finckel’s cello as he sounds the opening phrases of the slow introduction make clear. Rallentandi over cadences and marked pauses draw our attention to the beauties of each phrase. He plays the opening subject in a similar way, cantabile, and while this leads us through most of the work, Wu Han’s big octave and chords never lack weight or assertiveness, and when the music becomes agitated or stormy, they are equal to it. They give loving attention to their pianissimi, for example the hushed conclusion of the development. They press the scherzo on with urgency, the instruments answering each other argumentatively. Wu Han states the theme of the short Adagio cantabile which leads up to the finale with touching simplicity, while Finckel makes touching, fragmentary comments—an intimate dialogue to contrast with the inspired bickering of the Scherzo. (As a married couple they understand these things.) Again the main theme of the Finale could not be more light in tone or more delicate in phrasing. They broaden the pace considerably for the second subject, another dialogue. This is a detailed, probing, deeply satisfying performance of one of signature masterpieces Beethoven’s middle period.

In Opus 102 No. 1 they proceed from a touching, reflective slow introduction through a vigorous Allegro and a pensive, now wistful, now yearning, now solemn Adagio, to the startlingly original Finale, with its rapidly shifting moods, impulsive starts and halting stops, and wisps of counterpoint. They fully appreciate Beethoven’s eccentricities. In fact they revel in them, bringing the full dimension of the work to life. Opus 102, No. 2 begins with a seemingly conventional Allegro con brio, which provides less occasion for Wu Han and David Finckel’s lyrical tendencies. This is a big, bold movement, they make the most of it. One can particularly appreciate here how they give the music plenty of room to breathe, for example in the very strange pp bars just before the final outburst of the first movement. Beethoven’s Adagio con molto sentimento d’affetto is just that, one of his most deeply felt slow movements, going as far as the tragic and the funereal. From this emerges a jaunty fugato, full of witty conceits in the spare texture of piano and cello, playing often staccato. In this Finckel adopts a dryer tone than he has in other movements, following the clarity and rhythmic solidity the counterpoint requires.

The variations have all the variety and contrast one could wish for. These colorful performances evoke the improvisational brilliance Beethoven was keen to suggest.

As I hinted the sound is absolutely right. The instruments are present and perfectly balanced. The hall ambiance gives them body without intruding on the music. I have no hesitation in recommending this set, with all its individuality, as a basic recording of Beethoven’s works for cello. There are other great recordings of the music, but this is one of the most insightful and appealing.

Now for the Union College concert, to hear how their thoughts have developed since that Aspen Festival in 1997.

About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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