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Han and Finckel offer praiseworthy performances in Cliburn at the Kimbell series

Posted 11:49pm on Thursday, Mar. 27, 2014

Prokofiev. Shostakovich. Scriabin. Rachmaninoff. Cliburn Concerts. Another piano recital, right? Only half right.

There was also a cello Thursday night at the Cliburn at the Kimbell program in the Piano Pavilion. That made a lot of difference and took the concert a bit away from mainline fare.

The performers were the wife-and-husband team of pianist Wu Han and cellist David Finckel. Their program of all-Russian music was full of famous composers but pieces you don’t hear every season. This was an eye — or rather ear — opener.

Take Prokofiev’s Sonata for Cello and Piano in C major. Prokofiev can be abrasive at times, but here he’s gentle, if sometimes a bit melancholy, and counters the down mood with quite a bit of playfulness. The playing of both Finckel and Han was full of personality, and both produced powerful sounds. This was one program in which the pianist could play out without worrying about covering the cellist.

Shostakovich’s Sonata for Cello and Piano in D minor was a big surprise. Shostakovich is usually cynical and can be just as abrasive as Prokofiev at his most sneering. But this is romantic and probably the most lyrical music I’ve ever heard from the composer. There were times when some musically aware person might walk in and think “Is this really Shostakovich?” Again Han and Finckel were powerful partners, although there was one passage in the final movement in which Han came close to submerging Finckel.

Finckel took a break while Han played five preludes by Scriabin. Again the music was lovely and a bit understated — a characteristic not usually associated with the composer.

Rachmaninoff’s Sonata for Piano and Cello (that order is significant) in G minor showed the composer at his best. The work, from around the time of Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto, is full of melodically appealing music and dramatic flourishes. In mid-program remarks, Han declared that its difficulty is on the level of the third piano concerto, a famous bear of a piece. Here the piano takes the lead, though the cello has some lovely passages.

In terms of technical finesse, convincing interpretations and appealing music, Han’s and Finckel’s concert was a winner.

Incidentally, Han used an electronic score for her performances. A tap on a foot pedal turned the pages.

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