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Even the dry, unforgiving acoustics of Reynolds Theater could not dampen the spirits of cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han, one of the most energetic and polished duos we have heard in a long time. Brought to Duke University under the auspices of the Chamber Arts Society, they took us to Russia for three of the staples of the meager cello sonata literature, those by Sergey Prokofiev, Dmitry Shostakovich and Sergey Rachmaninov.
A duo on and off the stage, Finckel and Han demonstrated how perfection can be achieved when you combine long-term collaboration with great musicianship and unbounded enthusiasm. The opening work, the Cello Sonata, Op.119, by Prokofiev is a late work, composed in 1949 when the composer was gravely ill and in despair from being rejected by the Soviet cultural establishment as too "formalist." He strove for a more accessible, lyrical, tone, and the Sonata, written in close collaboration with cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, is lightweight, melodious and full of humor. Prokofiev elicits in this work some unfamiliar sounds from the cello, which Finckel brought out with flair. Han continually kept her eye on the cello to achieve the most precise coordination as well as matching dynamics.
A digression: We normally do not comment on the attire of concert performers, but in this case, Han's stunning silk robe in a vivid yellow, orange, violet and black art deco "flame" design over black pants and top with red high heeled shoes actually added to the effect and energy of the performance. Simply the way the outfit flowed over the piano bench and the visibility of the red shoes working the pedals was captivating - without distracting from the music - even for some of us who like to listen to concerts with our eyes closed.
The 1934 Cello Sonata, Op. 40, by Shostakovich is a much weightier work, written at the time of great personal success for the composer. It followed closely on the premiere of his highly successful opera Lady Macbeth of Mtzensk and was probably the only one of his compositions to remain in the Soviet repertoire after Stalin banned the opera two years later relegating the composer to the status of "non-person." It is an exuberant work, full of humor in the outer movements but with a great deal of introspection in the slow, third movement. The work demonstrates a knowledge of the technique and capabilities of the cello, unusual for a composer who did not play the instrument. The pair brought off brilliantly the humorous Scherzo movement, where the piano and cello engage in an imitative exchange in which the same music is adapted to each instrument's capabilities and idiosyncrasies.
The program ended with the Cello Sonata, Op.19, by Rachmaninov, a work typical of the late Romantic period, full of lush melodies and heartache, which Finckel and Han played to the hilt. Rachmaninov, a virtuoso pianist with a spectacular technique and large hands, wrote a fiendishly difficult piano part with his own capabilities in mind. Han rose to the challenge with a performance that surely would have pleased the composer. In this work, Finckel also had the opportunity to demonstrate the more lyrical and soulful voice of his instrument.
As encore, to cap Romanticism with Romanticism, they performed Rachmaninov's "Vocalise." Although they brought it off well, we wish they had chosen something less hackneyed.