Fort Worth — Wow. Thursday evening’s recital by David Finckel, until last year the cellist in the Emerson Quartet, and his pianist wife and collaborator Wu Han, was outstanding in every respect. The pair handled the demanding all-Russian program with grace, poise, musicality, and a substantial dose of (appropriate) whimsy.
From the first notes of Prokofiev’s Sonata for Cello and Piano in C Major, Finckel impressed with his lush, sonorous tone in all registers of the instrument. This kind of playing is what makes people fall in love with the cello. Ensemble in this sonata and in the two others Wu Han and David Finckel played together was as impeccable as might be hoped for from a couple married nearly 30 years. Finckel played from memory, while Wu Han used an iPad instead of traditional sheet music, eliminating the need for a page turner. They therefore had great freedom to connect with each other without worrying about printed music, and connect they did: musical ideas were well-thought out and effectively coordinated throughout the recital.
As the lyricism of the first movement of the Prokofiev made way for the whimsical insouciance of the second, Finckel and Han perfectly captured the shift in mood. Not only pitch but also character and articulation in unison sections were remarkably well-coordinated, also, showing the like-mindedness of these musicians. This was typical of the entire evening—the pair consistently expressed clear musical ideas with every movement of every sonata, and changed the idea or the mood on the proverbial dime.
The Shostakovich Sonata for Cello and Piano in D Minor is much more Romantic in mood and style than most of Shostakovich’s work. Han and Finckel again captured the mood of this piece effectively. A non vibrato section in the first movement creates a slightly ominous mood that is then belied by most of the rest of the piece. The raucous second movement was an opportunity for the pair to demonstrate their technical facility, while the third showed impeccable lyricism, and the fourth showed a bit of infernal whimsy. These two do whimsy especially well—Finckel, in particular, has a lively, mobile face when he plays. He always looks as if he is having fun, as if playing some of the most difficult chamber repertoire written for cello is the easiest thing in the world.
After intermission, Wu Han performed five of Scriabin’s Preludes for Solo Piano. Before beginning to play, she offered some remarks about the program which were lively, insightful, and charming. The Scriabin showed her nuanced, delicate musicianship and lyrical lines.
Last on the program was Rachmaninoff’s Sonata for Piano and Cello in G Minor. As the title indicates, the piano part does take precedence here. It is extraordinarily difficult, and Wu Han handled its technical challenges with flair, as did Finckel. This hall is so unforgiving, though, that even the tiniest flaw is greatly magnified—a bow distribution issue on a sustained note that would be largely if not completely disguised in many other halls was glaringly obvious here, even though it was actually so, so minor. The new Renzo Piano Auditorium is a great hall for great players, but amplifies the bad as well as the good.
The pair provided an encore that was the only non-Russian piece on the program—the delightful fourth movement “March” from Benjamin Britten’s Cello and Piano Sonata.
Thursday’s recital in the new Cliburn at the Kimbell series was ostensibly sold out (although there were some empty seats). This was a remarkable opportunity for a few hundred people to hear an extraordinary recital by two gifted musicians.