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Brahms: Sonatas For Cello & Piano / David Finckel, Wu Han

David Finckel, Cello; Wu Han, Piano
Release Date: 10/05/2012 
Label:  Artistled   Catalog #: 10501  
Composer:  Johannes Brahms
Performer:  Wu HanDavid Finckel
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

My plea for a moratorium on new recordings of the Brahms cello sonatas has gone unheeded, for here is yet another. Just as well, for this latest entry is a very good one, and it offers some uncommon extras that have special appeal to a Brahms lover like me. But more on that later. First, the performances.

David Finckel’s name is perhaps most closely associated with America’s premier chamber ensemble, the Emerson Quartet. He has occupied the cello chair, if I am not mistaken, since the group’s founding. His musical activities, however, are quite far ranging, and have included both solo appearances in the US and abroad, and countless duo engagements with Wu Han, his pianist partner and wife. They have recorded the complete
Read more Beethoven cello sonatas, as well as other major cello-piano repertoire, and together launched this label, ArtistLed, the first musician-directed and Internet-based recording company. The current Brahms disc is their eighth release. The company’s Web site is www.artistled.com.

Competition in this repertoire is intense, and I am not going to claim that this new recording is best in class, but it does contain some very impressive music making. Finckel wisely turns to advantage what could well be a shortcoming in a lesser artist. I am referring to his tone, which is not of the plump, plummy, full-bodied variety possessed by some players—Leonard Rose, for example. I would not use the word thin to describe Finckel’s sound, because that has negative connotations. Rather, I would call it lean. This he turns to strength by sculpting a Brahms that is lithe and athletic. Not how everyone thinks of Brahms, to be sure, but the E-Minor Sonata is, after all, a work of the late-blooming composer’s comparative youth; he was not yet 30 in the summer of 1862 when he began work on it. Finckel and Han adopt a rather faster tempo for the first movement than has of late been the norm, but what little is lost in melodic and harmonic refulgence is more than made up for in structural integrity, which extends to taking the exposition repeat. I also found particularly delightful their way with the quasi-scherzo second movement. They bring out its gnomic dance character in a way that suggests its not-so-distant remove from Mendelssohn’s elfin scherzos—another image one tends not to associate with Brahms.

Bold, striding, heroic gestures open the F-Major Sonata, a much later work dating from 1886, the composer’s 53rd year. Alas, the day that begins so optimistically soon turns gloomy and foreboding. There is much in this afterbirth of the Fourth Symphony that presages the doomsday of the C-Minor Piano Trio, op. 101, and the melodic fragmenting, harmonic disintegration, and rhythmic dislocations of the “Double” Concerto, op. 102. Again, a no-nonsense, take-no-prisoners approach works especially well in this sometimes emotionally ambiguous and other times emotionally frantic music.

It was inspired programming that placed the late solo piano pieces of op. 118 on the same disc. Nothing could have been more perfectly timed than the opening measures of the A-Minor Intermezzo—the first in the set of op. 118 solo piano pieces—pouring forth from my speakers. It was a quiet mid-December Sunday afternoon, and as I looked out the window, as if on cue, it began to snow, a relative rarity in these climes where I live.

These valedictory vignettes from the December of Brahms’s life also speak of the winter whiteness of snow, of windows that gaze outward upon wind-blown landscapes, and of windows that gaze inward upon the loss of things that once were and that might have been. It was Brahms after all who said, “life robs one of more than death.” Maybe it was just my mood or the moment, but Wu Han seems to have a rare affinity for this music that I have seldom heard. She really gets to its heart and soul, and to mine.

The special treat in store for the buyer of this CD is twofold. First, the booklet notes by Patrick Castillo are exceptionally well annotated. For each composition we are given dates, places, and players of first performances, dates of first publication and publishers, and other approximately contemporaneous Brahms works. Second, courtesy of Eugene Drucker, Emerson Quartet violinist, ArtistLed has reproduced three rare photographs of Brahms and his circle of friends during a visit to Bad Honef and to Hagerhof, the nearby family estate of the Weyermann family, in May of 1896, just shy of a year before the composer’s death. Drucker inherited the photos from his father, Ernst, who studied violin with Bram Eldering, one of Germany’s leading violin teachers; and it is Eldering who appears at Brahms’s side in the outdoor pictures.

Highly recommended.

-- Jerry Dubins, FANFARE [7/2006] Read less

Works on This Recording

Sonata for Cello and Piano no 1 in E minor, Op. 38 by Johannes Brahms
Performer:  Wu Han (Piano), David Finckel (Cello)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1862-1865; Austria 
Sonata for Cello and Piano no 2 in F major, Op. 99 by Johannes Brahms
Performer:  Wu Han (Piano), David Finckel (Cello)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1886; Austria 
Pieces (6) for Piano, Op. 118 by Johannes Brahms
Performer:  Wu Han (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1892; Austria 

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