Beethoven’s five sonatas for cello and piano are pieces about the art of conversation, about how instruments talk to each other. And though that’s pretty much the definition of chamber music, it applies to these sonatas with special force. Who talks and who listens? What tone of voice predominates? What’s the subject matter? In their Celebrity Series presentation of all five sonatas at Jordan Hall Sunday afternoon, cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han shared honors as they celebrated the composer’s many moods.
For Beethoven, these works were an evolving conversation: He wrote the first two in 1796, the third in 1808, and the last two in 1815. The first two were designed to show off the composer’s prowess at the piano; they’re really piano sonatas with cello accompaniment. In the last three, the cello speaks up for itself, but the piano is never less than an equal partner.
Finckel and Wu are not just longtime musical collaborators, they’re
also husband and wife, so you could imagine that the conversations
onstage might reflect the ones at home. And at no time did they suggest a couple buried in the newspaper at breakfast. Finckel played from memory; Wu had the score on an iPad, turning the pages via foot pedal, but she hardly glanced at it, instead listening to her husband and looking around at him often.
Wu’s tone is heavy, almost fruity; Finckel’s is on the dry, puckery side. It’s not a match made in heaven, and there were times, mostly in the dynamic allegros, when their blend wasn’t ideal. Their Beethoven is by turns stormy and playful, not quite as tightly wound as the performance Pieter Wispelwey and Lois Shapiro gave a year ago at Tufts, but not as slow and romantic as that of Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax in these works. Wu might, for example, have milked the descending line that starts off the G-minor sonata a bit more.
But this performance was mostly about two musicians making room for each other. In the opening movement of the A-major sonata, they seemed to be competing to see who could play more softly. Wu’s beginning of the A-major’s Adagio cantabile was so heartrendingly rapt and singing, I started wishing I could hear her play the “Gesangvoll” last movement of Beethoven’s Opus 109 piano sonata — but then Finckel took up the melody and was equally moving. He opened the C-major sonata with a sinuous phrase, she answered with one that conjured softly glowing stars, and they went on to perform the movement as if they were playing separate pieces that fit together perfectly.
Wu, moreover, is an engaging performer even when she’s not playing. Sunday she gave the audience some brief background on the sonatas along with a good dose of humor. It created the right mood for their rewarding conversation.