No composer offered a more revealing musical diary of his life than Ludwig van Beethoven, from his early break from Haydn-style classicism to his defiant struggles with deafness to his late works that look to the future and speak with unmatched profundity.
His nine symphonies or 16 string quartets might offer a more sweeping and better-known sense of his musical evolution, but his five cello sonatas provide a substantial taste of each of his three key compositional periods. And they have the significant advantage of being able to be played in one evening — an event that remains a rare and special treat.
Cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han, artistic directors of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, took on the set of five sonatas Tuesday evening in a 2½-hour performance that concluded the ensemble-in-residence’s 2013-14 concerts at the Harris Theater. It was a powerful and enlightening experience, bolstered by Han’s light yet insightful introductions to the pieces.
Finckel is best known as the founding cellist of the celebrated Emerson String Quartet, a position he held for 34 years, stepping down in 2013 so that, among other things, he could pursue more concert opportunities of just this kind.
He and Han are top-notch, well-matched individual performers. Finckel possesses a robust sound with a beautiful, earthy bottom and an authoritative, compelling performance style, and Han brings seemingly boundless technique and appealing zestfulness to her playing.
As husband and wife and frequent duet partners, the two possess a kind of instinctive rapport and musical cohesion that simply isn’t possible with musicians who perform together occasionally. They demonstrated a deep bond with this music, conveying it with evident commitment and joy.
These sonatas were originally written for the lighter fortepiano, and it would have been easy for today’s nine-foot concert grand piano to overwhelm the cello, but Finckel and Han maintained a nuanced, well-calibrated balance between the two instruments all evening long.
Taking the sonatas in chronological order, the duet opened with Beethoven’s two early efforts in this form from 1796, offering a sprightly take on the Sonata in F major, Op. 5, No. 1, and nicely contrasting it with the more dramatic Sonata in G minor, Op. 5, No. 2.
After intermission came the middle-period Sonata in A major, Op. 69, written in 1807-08 around the same time as the Symphony No. 6, and here Beethoven makes this form his own, turning the cellist and pianist into equal partners. A highlight was Finckel and Han’s compellingly manic performance of the off-center scherzo second movement.
The concert ended with Beethoven’s two late works from 1815 — the shortest of the five pieces, with the composer digging deeper yet presenting his ideas in more condensed way. After the kind of free-form Sonata in C major, Op. 102, came the Sonata in D major, Op. 102, with the duet offering an eloquent, moving take on the famed slow second movement.
Hearing any one of these works alone is a welcome event, but experiencing them played all once by artists of this high caliber enhances their impact and provides another opportunity to marvel at Beethoven’s extraordinary musical journey.