Legato...Line in music: world class music-making

David Finckel, Cellist and Wu Han, Pianist in concert

In a digital world with snippets of thought translated into pixels of 0's and 1's, we are losing sense of the lyrical..the line that carries a thought, a sound, an idea through space and time. In music, this line is called "legato" and is used to express, to tie together, much like a sentence, separate notes into a wholeness of thought. (This also is an element in visual art and ballet, but more about that another time.)

A master of this on the cello, David Finckel, was heard last night in a performance at St. Paul's-by-the-Sea as part of the free Beaches Fine Arts Series. He was partnered by his wife, the exuberant Wu Han, in works by Russian composers of the late 19th, early to mid Twentieth century; the two, international stars in the concert galaxy.

Opening with the Prokovieff Sonata C Major, Op.119, written in 1949, Finckel gave us a range of dynamic expressiveness from the most delicate pianissimo to robust animal-like leaps with a huge sound which could compete with the athleticism of the piano part with its typical "Prokovieff-ian" bombast. If there was anything else a composer could coax out of either instrument, one would have to wait for John Cage's "prepared piano" pieces later in the century, and his composition for nude cellist, wrapped in cellophane.

Prokovieff could be quite a "rude" composer, from early in his career, breaking rules right and left, aggressively re-arranging the music world's idea of the proper order of musical notes. Another Russian rival, Igor Stravinsky, was doing the same thing in Paris, while the Austrian, Arnold Schoenberg, was whooping it up in Vienna, alarming folks with his twelve-tone rows. This was the Twentieth century, and by golly, things were just going to have to change! (Like it or not.)

But, Prokovieff still possessed enough of that mysteriously romantic, sometimes nostalgic, Russian genetic code which allowed him to create memorable melodies of infinite sweetness, overlaid with Soviet-induced cynicism, sometimes stopping at the point of irony and sarcasm. He even created some compositions for the piano entitled, "Sarcasms." He could also go in the other direction with his "Visions Fugitives" for Piano, Op. 22.

The night of my first hearing of this sonata, my sister showed me a record album by an unknown (sic) Russian cellist, Mstislav Rostropovich, whom she declared to be "the greatest cellist in the world." (This was 1964), And, so he was: a force of Nature. And, what set Rostropovich apart from the other cellists of the day was his beautiful legato, the singing quality, matching the violin in its purity of tone, with none of the "tubby" sound that the cello can succumb to in lesser hands. His sound was ethereal, like something heaven sent: a transcendental, floating sound. David Finckel is his successor, not only in time, but in technique, having studied for a time with Rostropovich. But, Finckel is his own man: what he brings to the playing of the cello he can claim as his own creativity.

The balance of this creativity is in his choice of collaborator an wife, pianist, Wu Han, who, with the difficult repertoire of the evening, the Prokovieff, Shostakovich's Cello and Piano Sonata in D Minor, Op. 40 (1934), Scriabin's Five Preludes for Solo Piano, Op. 16 (1894-1896), followed by the Rachmaninoff Sonata for Cello and Piano in G Minor, Op. 19 (1901), gave lie to a common  misperception that sonatas are for cello with piano "accompaniment."

In all these pieces, there is plenty of hard work to share all around! And Wu Han expresses her part with so much of what the Chinese refer to as Chi: Cosmic Dragon's Breath. Great energy in spirit, with the warmth of her particular musical nature  combined with a formidable technique, Wu Han is a great match for her husband. She "grounds" him with her earthiness, while he threatens to slip away into the Empyrean. Not that he isn't able to return the favor in certain movements of these pieces, especially, in sections of playful counter point in the second movement of the Prokovieff. Their collaboration is an example of genuine musical communication: nothing "rote" about their performance.

The Shostakovich Sonata changes moods so drastically, reflecting the internal and sometimes external turbulence of the composer's life as he lived, delicately balanced on the edges of a Soviet cultural razor blade. The legacy of moral choices he had to make remains in the music: tensions abide and underlie every phrase. Contrasting the First movement with the Second, the music moves from contemplative, tender melodies to the Second Movement, a nagging argument between the two instruments, lapsing at intervals into tenderness, only to resume, at the end, a final outburst of aggressive emotion. The Largo opens with a tragic theme which hints at futility, so often found in Shostakovich's compositions. These moments were ones which resonated so with his audiences who shared his sense of helplessness, brought about, in part, by reluctant complicity with the Stalinist totalitarian system which provided, literally, no way out. Yet, in the final Movement, his spirit rebounds with a playful, dance-like exchange of the cello with the piano, both instruments musically skipping, then running along, like children at play, asserting the joy of living. So, balance is, temporarily, restored.

The miniature Scriabin Piano Preludes provided a perfect transition to the Rachmaninoff Sonata which ended the concert. Wu Han gave a rendering of exquisite simplicity, which underscored the purity of Scriabin's mysticism. Not melodramatic as his later pieces, Fantasies, Etudes, and the coloristic, bizarre Poem of Ecstasy for orchestra, they capture more the meditative, contemplative side of the Russian character in the Late Romantic era.

Finally, Rachmaninoff's beautiful cello and piano Sonata, typical of the warmth of emotion and the loving character of much of his music, ended the program. David Finckel is a natural for this piece, expressing all the lyricism, largeness of Russian musical generosity, and most of all, creating a legato which enveloped the piece in a seamless world of rich sound, ranging from the warmth of the deepest part of the cello to its delicate mists of pianissimo. Aways, a certain melancholy lies within Rachmaninoff's music. To express this, while not descending into morbidity is important, for Rachmaninoff was also capable of humor and kindness of spirit in his personal relationships with other musicians. (To kill the time one day, while he waited for the always tardy Fritz Kreisler to show up for a rehearsal, he composed, Variations on Kreisler's violin composition, Liebesfreud, which they had been rehearsing for a recording. Kreisler was not apparently not amused, but it is a splendidly happy piece, expressing with improvisatory-like pianistic exuberance, the ever popular Kreisler piece.) Wu Han's grasp of the technical difficulties of the piano part was powerful, rhythmically interweaving the beautiful melodies of piano with cello in such a way that the total effect was unified: legato, fulfilled.

The encore was a transcription for cello and piano of one of Rachmaninoff's piano Preludes: a musical motive of tender "farewell" to the audience which showed its gratitude for the extraordinary musical quality of the evening.

I am not able to re-create this performance in words, except to say that, having heard various cellists, besides Rostropovich, play these pieces, that David Finckel and Wu Han gave an evening of truly great, inspired, virtuoso music making, making this concert the answer to a question someone, rhetorically, asked, why are we doing this? Along with hundreds of others, venturing out on a rainy evening for a 36 mile round trip to hear a concert, the answer: to nourish our starving musical souls. It was entirely worth it. Those musicians and music-lovers who missed it because of complacency, laziness, or irritation with the rain, or, perhaps, fatigued by Friday "end-of-the-week-ness" are the poorer for it: too bad. Just try to do better the next time this duo comes to town, or the music gods will punish you.