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Wu Han Live, plays works of BACH, HAYDN & MENDELSSOHN – ArtistLed

Wu Han Live = BACH: French Suite No. 5 in G Major, BWV 816; HAYDN: Keyboard Concertino in C Major, Hob. XIV: 11; MENDELSSOHN: 4 Songs without Words; Double Concerto in D Minor for Violin, Piano and Strings – Wu Han, piano/ Erin Keefe and Jorja Flezanis, violins/ David Finckel, cello (Haydn)/ Benjamin Beilman, violin (Mendelssohn)/ Kristin Lee and Sunmi Chang, violins/ Richard O’Neill, viola/ Dmitri Atapine, cello/ Scott Pingel, bass – ArtistLed [www.music@menlo.org] ****: 

Wu Han (b. 1959), the Taiwanese-American pianist and concert impraesario, has well established her repute and musical range with any number of active organizations. She was instrumental in the formation of Music@Menlo’s innovative live recording series, Music@Menlo LIVE, which commercially releases live recordings from the festival each year. The label was launched in 2004 and has been praised as “probably the most ambitious recording project of any classical music festival in the world” (San Jose Mercury News). The present disc comprises a series of appearances over the course of ten years, 2003-2013. Recording Engineer De-Hong Seetoo must receive credit for his crystalline sonic image of Ms. Han’s Steinway, which from the opening  Allemande of Bach’s Fifth French Suite delivers nothing less than glamour in piano sound reproduction. Han plays with a refined delicacy that does not lack for contrapuntal clarity and virile nuance. Her studies with Rudolf Serkin and Menahem Pressler reap divine fruit in her eloquence with Bach. The slower movements, the Sarabande and Loure, retain their dance character even in the midst of elevated meditation. The final Gigue, fleet and scintillating in its playful counterpoints, enjoys a forward motion that absorbs grace notes and fioritura without missing a pearly beat.

The Haydn 1760 Concertino in C Major remains a rarity in the concert hall, so this incarnation from 2010 proves welcome. Cast in three movements, its main focus lies in a domestic serenade’s charm, rife with occasional interplay between the keyboard and solo or paired members of the strings. It does not really partake of our more refined notions of a piano quartet, as such. The heart of the piece, the four-minute Adagio, offers an arioso movement that might well have served young Mendelssohn a fine example for his own melodic efforts. The last movement Allegro continues to highlight the lightly fluent character of the piano, supported by sprightly strings.

Han plays four of the Mendelssohn cycle of Songs without Words, three from Op. 67 (1845) and one, from the 1844 set, the Op. 62, No. 6. Brief and poignant, each of these miniatures testifies to the keyboard’s capacity to sing in the evolving bel canto tradition. Their condensed moments of bravura remind us that Mendelssohn could elicit great power from the keyboard, when required. The familiar “Spring Song” of Op. 62 provides the “slow movement” for this pleasant suite-interlude. The “Spinning Song” concludes our tour with elfin, bright textures.

The Double Concerto of Mendelssohn (1823) provides firm documentation of the striking audacity in a fourteen-year-old composer already capable of fusing Baroque music-practice with Romantic sensibility. The opening of the expansive Allegro combines the sonority of a Brandenburg Concerto with exquisitely polished duos for the two main instruments, performed with fiery vigor by Han and violinist Beilman. A combination of formal mastery and virtuosic elan, the music explodes its salon confines and urges its way into the concert hall that both Beethoven and Paganini occupy. The latter two movements, respectively, confirm the composer’s gifts for inspired song and studied, even tempestuous, counterpoint. The vibrant warmth of the supporting players can be deceptively lulling, almost transparent in its glowing aura infused with many subsidiary motifs of passing beauty.

—Gary Lemco

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