By Mike Dunham
I have not heard cello playing in Anchorage as good as what I heard from David Finckel on Saturday night, (Dec. 1) in Atwood Concert Hall. Finckel and pianist Wu Han were presented by the Anchorage Concert Association in a recital of three cello sonatas -- by Richard Strauss, Edvard Grieg ("Perfect for this weather," Han quipped, a reference to Grieg's nod to Nordic folksongs) and Cesar Franck.
Han was definitely in the accompanist role here, often looking over her shoulder to catch the cue from her colleague (and husband, which may have something to do with the high degree of connectedness in the playing). Her technique is visually somewhat flamboyant -- hand poised at eye level some beats before striking the note, the unoccupied left foot swinging back and forth -- yet crisp in execution. The repertoire gave her few opportunities for the more forceful playing heard on recent CDs of, say, the Walton Piano Quartet.
Finckel, however, was the better musician, at least on Saturday night. Technically flawless, energetic and songful, bringing personality to his instrument. The cello's proclivity for long and soulful lines meant the slow movements were the highlight of the program for me, particularly in the Strauss and the Franck.
Finckel played his own transcription of the Franck, a piece better known in its original violin and piano version. Playing it on other instruments has always been a problem for me; the higher register of the violin is critical at key points: the recurring theme that drops a major sixth and resolves a half step down is a case in point. Hearing it on a cello is like hearing a baritone sing Musetta's Waltz. Some of Finckel's tweaking -- and certainly his fine playing -- may be an improvement over the previous times I've experienced this work played on anything but a violin; but the problem remains.
A separate problem was the program itself, which was restricted to three sonatas all written in the 1880s. Lovely pieces, all, but a little bit of something else -- oh a Baroque rarity or a taste of Kodaly -- wouldn't have hurt. Alaskan audiences can handle the occasional listening challenge.