Some say that Johannes Brahms was a gruff but honest person that was a cover for a heart of gold. Yet composer Gustav Mahler said of Brahms that he was “a mannequin with a somewhat narrow heart.” As much as I love Mahler, these cello sonatas by the composer who summed up an era of romanticism, are saturated with anything but a narrow heart. As performed by cellist David Finckel (cellist of the Emerson Quartet) and pianist Wu Han, these are vital, heartfelt works that represent the best of Brahm’s brand of achingly beautiful lyricism and Romantic passion.
The Sonata No. 1 (Op. 38) begins with a solemn solo by Finckel that reveals his gorgeous tone and the close and ‘up front’ recording. One of Finckel’s strengths as a cellist is his ability to spin pianissimos of tensile strength without losing emotional expression. Resplendent with melodies, this movement ends with pianist Wu Han playing as if she is sending a beam of light over the cello’s dark meditation. The second movement is a muted Viennese waltz with an emotional middle section that is reserved in its outpourings. The third movement is a collaborative exploration of similarities and differences that progressively intensifies to an exciting conclusion.The finale is perfectly judged and exciting with Finckel’s lower registers magnificently resonant. Too bad this isn’t a DVD as I’ve seen this pair perform live at their superb chamber music festival, Music at Menlo, and seeing their facial expressions as they perform is almost worth the price of admission alone.
The more familiar Second Sonata (Op. 99) opens with a passionate dialogue between the cello and piano that intersperses melody with drama. There is a moment of magical pianissimos from Finckel and Wu Han at 5:30 in a transition to the recapitulation that is stunning. The adagio is saturated with deeply felt melodies exemplified by the blissfully serene meditative passage at 3:20. The Scherzo, an Hungarian dance, is performed with vigor and clean articulation, with a slow middle section that is achingly romantic. The finale excitedly transitions from a plaintive melody to a march and ends in a full blown romantic statement, at once beautiful and then stormy.
I was initially disappointed by the choice of Brahms’ Six Pieces for Solo Piano, but changed my mind after hearing Wu Han’s performance of these gems. Whether it is the powerful Ballade in g minor, the plaintive e flat minor Intermezzo or the meltingly beautiful A Major Intermezzo, this is heartfelt, intelligent and sensitive piano playing, beautifully captured in resplendent sound by recording engineer Da-Hong Seetoo.
— Robert Moon