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BACH: Sonata for Viola da Gamba and Keyboard in G Major, BWV 1027; DEBUSSY: Cello Sonata in D minor; MENDELSSOHN: Cello Sonata No. 2 in D Major, Op. 58; BRITTEN: Cello Sonata in C Major, Op. 65 – David Finckel, cello/ Wu Han, piano – Artistled 67:00 [www.artistled.com] ****:

Recorded May and September 2017, this recital by David Finckel and Wu Han provides another vivid example of their musical collaboration, extending as it does into Music@Menlo and several other significant venues.  This disc celebrates the 20th anniversary of the Artistled institution and its dedicated Recording Engineer, Da-Hong Seetoo.

Almost needless to say, the sound of Finckel’s 1993 Zygmuntowicz instrument pierces and moves us in high gloss, opening with Bach’s sonata, one of three written circa 1740.  The piece casts an easy, fluent light as Finckel and Han address the Adagio, the ornaments and counterpoint’s unfolding with no sense of “learned” mannerism.  The Allegro ma non tanto assumes the gait of a rustic dance in close polyphony. Unlike Glenn Gould – who worked with Leonard Rose – Han does not attempt to make her piano sound like a harpsichord. Darkly lyrical, the Andante projects a vaguely obsessive drama.  The final Allegro moderato thoroughly exploits the equality of voices in the principals, a happy jaunt not without its moments of wit and sweet facility.

The Mendelssohn Cello Sonata No. 2 (1843) clearly maintains its hegemony among Romantic compositions in the medium, if only for its energetic spontaneity and breadth of expression. The huge singing line Finckel executes for the opening Allegro assai vivace enjoys a lusty glamour in the course of music that moves into polyphony as easily as anything in Bach.  The “elfin” Allegretto scherzando doubtless engenders comparisons with the eternal A Midsummer Night’s Dream incidental music.  Rather chaste in this version, the music has dignity as well as leisurely grace in its middle section. The slow movement, Adagio, relies on Mendelssohn’s love of and broad knowledge of Christian doxology. The last movement, Molto allegro e vivace, has both players in robust dialogue, and more than once I could see a solid rivalry in this performance to that by Piatagorsky that has long been a favorite.

Claude Debussy conceived of a set of six chamber works he meant to contribute to the French repertory, but fatal illness intervened.  His Cello Sonata (1915) retains an angular but highly expressive tessitura and singing style, even to the point of imitating a gondolier or Spanish guitarist’s lyric.  In his liner note, Finckel admits to having Mstislav Rostropovich and Benjamin Britten as active models for his own shaping of both the Debussy and the Britten works on this disc. The expressive mode between the Debussy and Britten ((1961) works expands dramatically, in terms of harmonic and modal dissonance. But the grand line suffuses both works, even in the midst of thoughtful, meditative passages. Britten, having heard Rostropovich in concert in the music of Shostakovich, felt an immediate musical kinship, which he courted with wonderful fruition.  The five-movement structure in Britten pays homage both to Shostakovich and to Bartok, especially him of the late quartets.  The declamatory elements in this “suite” resonate with grim authority, lean and severe, the piano patina often redolent with the influence of Ravel.   The recital becomes a potent, persuasive homage to music and musicians, rife with technical prowess and innate affection.

—Gary Lemco

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