Pianist Wu Han is no stranger to Sunset Center, for she has frequently appeared in ensemble with her cellist husband David Finckel, and violinist partner Philip Setzer. However, yesterday afternoon we heard her in all her glory as a piano soloist performing for the Carmel Music Society. Speaking to the audience from the stage, Wu explained that the two extended works she was performing for us in this recital had special significance as pieces to which she has a long and emotional connection.
The first half of the program was devoted to Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons, Op. 37 b. More accurately the twelve miniature pieces comprising this work should be called The Months, since each one represents one of the months of the calendar year. Tchaikovsky’s relationship with the piano was a peculiar one, for after creating two great masterpieces for the piano — The Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Op. 23, one of the best known of all piano concertos and the Piano Trio in A Minor, Op. 50, a perennial favorite with audiences, his inspiration for composing for the piano seemingly dried up, and he created no great smaller works for piano solo.
No matter how artistically Wu performed these miniatures, this cycle can never captivate and charm us in the same way as a performance of Chopin’s Preludes, Op. 28, or either set of Etudes from Op. 10 or 25. However, four of Tchaikovsky’s twelve miniatures —March: Song of the Lark; June: Barcarolle; August: The Harvest; November: Troika, stand out from the others and achieve a significance of their own. Here Wu was in her element and managed to get to the heart of each one and deliver convincing and charming performances.
The second half of the recital was devoted to Schubert’s great Sonata in B-flat Major, D. 960, a 45-minute, profound masterpiece written in the last year of Schubert’s life. Because of the length of this work, most pianists do not take the the first movement exposition repeat. Well, Ms. Wu did just that yesterday afternoon and we suddenly discovered what we had been missing. At the end of the exposition section we suddenly heard a violent trill in the bass and some chordal progressions that sounded straight out of the 20th century that plunged us back to a repeat of the exposition section. This was an emotionally charged and disturbing moment that we will never forget, and in retrospect it augmented the power and emotional meaning of they great sonata. We are grateful to Ms. Wu for taking us on this amazing journey.
Ms. Han was performing from score with the use of an iPad and a bluetooth pedal assembly that turned pages of her score at the touch of a foot pedal. Perhaps this is a sign of things to come. Will more and more soloists rely on technology to help them perform complicated scores without the drudgery and repetitious practice needed to build a solid and reliable memory? Would Ms. Wu’s performance have had more intensity and conviction had it been based on a lifetime of memorized performances? These are unanswered questions, but in any case Wu entertained and enriched us with her performance, and even threw in a charming encore by Albeniz. The audience loved it.