The San Antonio Chamber Music Society is celebrating its 70th anniversary this year and what a great reminder of what chamber music is all about than when husband and wife duo David Finckel (cello) and Wu Han (piano) performed at Temple Bethel last Sunday.
They were recently named "Musicians of the Year" by Musical America in 2012. Some concerts you know are going to be great just by walking in the hall, and this was one of them.
I've heard their recordings and expected a lot from this performance; after looking through the program guide I was not disappointed.
First: "Cello Sonata in F" by Richard Strauss
This sonata was so early in Strauss' career that he hadn't chosen a camp yet.
The big donnybrook in German music at the time was between the two groups: The Liszt/ Wagner new school of music, and the traditional, conservative approach as shown by Robert Schumann, Mendelssohn and Brahms.
The cello sonata falls into the Brahms camp and Strauss does not break any big rules, but he does give us a hint of were his music will go.
The opening is a fanfare-like blast from, alternately, the piano and then cello. These phrases are heroic and seem to be written for the horn, which is not surprising since Richard's father was the premiere horn virtuoso of his day. Even the key signature would suit his father's instrument.
The power and sudden dynamic shifts shown by Han and Finckel would have made Strauss proud.
Second: Johannes Brahms' first "Cello Sonata"
This piece was written not long after the composer moved to Vienna, and here Brahms shows what he is about: A traditional opening movement, a charming Minuetto second, and then going to late Bach work out the theme from his "Art of Fugue."
David Finckel and Wu Han produced quite a unique sound in the Brahms, smooth and rich as chocolate, and the phrasing and ensemble was ideal. A real treat for any music lover from the first note to the last.
A shift in time and effect, but not in beauty
After intermission, the duo played Olivier Messiaen's "The Quartet for the End of Time." The fifth movement, Praise to the Eternity of Jesus was played quicker than some performances I've heard, but surprisingly, none of that eternal grace one associates with the music was lost.
Again the phrasing between Finckel and Han was exquisite and that ethereal and other worldliness was much in evidence. The way they shaped the last phrases was like music drifting off into space - incredible.
Last: Frederic Chopin's "Cello Sonata opus 65"
Composed the last year of his life, the music is dense and melancholy with remembered heroism and greatness. The composer may have worked from his sick bed, but he didn't stint on the work expected from the musicians. The piano part is very taxing and Wu Han's fingers flew over the keyboard making for an exciting finale to the concert.
In keeping with this important year for musical anniversaries, the encore was a march from Benjamin Britten's "Cello Sonata" that started with a bang - in its idiosyncratic way - and marched into the distance, fading away. All in all, a great afternoon of music, thanks to the San Antonio Chamber Music Society.
- Learn more about the society's performances online at: sacms.org