Vienna in Vienna: chamber music with Wolf Trap

David Finckel and Wu Han give their own color to tradition and open the Wolf Trap chamber music season with Beethoven. (Rob Wallace / Mindful Photo)

David Finckel and Wu Han are chamber music. On Sunday afternoon, the couples – heads of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, the Music @ Menlo festival and the record company ArtistLed – reigned in the Wolf Trap Barns with a hugely fascinating performance of all five Beethoven cello sonatas.

Wu Han, the pianist, is the artistic advisor responsible for composing chamber music with Wolf Trap for the next two seasons – a signal change from the curator of last season, Lara St. John. Where St. John concentrated on diversity and folk music, Wu Han concentrates on the roughest of classical music, the city of Vienna. The program she has put together offers many lovers of the classical canon, performed by the chamber of established chamber music players: the influence of Haydn on Mozart, offered by the St. Lawrence String Quartet! A program of chamber music by Schubert! Another from Brahms and Dvorak! No doubt that these are all masterpieces, but these programs could have been planned in 1950.

Still, it was difficult to listen to Wu Han enthusiastically about the upcoming season of the stage on Sunday and not sharing in her excitement. During their career Finckel and Wu Han represented exactly this: the gold-rimmed business card of the tradition-sanctified field, seemingly unaffected by the mandate to diversify and reinvent, but interleaved with their tangible love of music and their active desire to find more ways – festivals, recordings and educational initiatives – to spread it. Instead of trying to change the face of the field, they try to make the tradition more lively and attractive (witness the colorful red dress of Wu Han, decorated with a photographed portrait of Frida Kahlo and tassels). They provided convincing evidence for their approach in the sonatas of Beethoven, a seductive pleasure of the first soft, resilient tones of the last wild fugue.

Finckel is an older statesman of the field and anchors the Emerson Quartet for more than three decades before deciding to liberate himself and pursue a career at Wu Han that has proved equally active and successful. (It is striking that their joint biography in the program is so full of performance that the Emerson Quartet does not even get a mention.) On stage he remains an attentive and leading presence, reflecting his face on what is happening in music. Yet he is not an emotional player. On the contrary, he offers didactic clarity in the way he distinguishes one sentence from the other, a dime from a transition from sweetness to an allegro, gently articulating individual tones instead of succumbing to the attraction of legato. Wu Han is more impetuous; but together the two form the kind of visceral familiarity and perfect synchronization, born from years of shared music production.

They have also preserved a key element of the musical tradition that is too often forgotten: joy. Again and again the one or the other laughed at each other or at Beethoven, and I would realize that I was laughing at them.

Chamber Music at the Barns continues with trios from Beethoven, Dohnanyi and Mozart on 11 January.