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Strauss, Franck, Finckel

The Strauss is one of our favorites… We cellists steal the Franck from the violinists. You can’t find a better sonata anywhere… [The “Williow Variations”] actually makes a nice program, and perhaps it will get you interested in my father’s disc as well.
– David Finckel

Richard Strauss
Sonata in F Major, Op. 6

César Franck
Sonata in A Major

Edwin Finckel
Variations on a Theme
"Willow Weep for Me"


Wu Han (piano), David Finckel (cello)


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Notes on the Music:

Richard Strauss (1864-1949)
Sonata in F major, Op. 6 (1883)

The two main works on this recording were composed within three years of each other -- Richard Strauss' F Major Sonata was completed in 1883 and César Franck's A Major Sonata in 1886.

Strauss was born in Munich on the 11th of June, 1864, the son of Franz Joseph Strauss, principal hornist in the Court Orchestra (Hoforchester) and Josephine Pschorr, whose family were prominent brewers in the Bavarian capital (a city still famous the world over for its beer). This lineage provided the young Richard with a background both musically and financially secure and, indeed, he showed great promise from an early age: he started piano at four (he could read musical notes before letters and words) and began composing at the age of six (lieder, piano pieces and orchestral overtures). At the age of eight, Richard Strauss began violin studies and at eleven, theory, harmony and

instrumentation (of which he was to become an acknowledged master). His father encouraged him to listen to the music of the older masters, including Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Schumann, all of whose influences can be clearly heard in Strauss's cello sonata, which he began to compose in 1881 at the age of seventeen. He revised the work extensively during the winter of 1882-1883, preserving only the introductory Allegro con brio, in which the cello is treated in a heroic style anticipating his tone poem, "Don Juan", of 1888. When the sonata was first performed in Berlin in 1884, he was congratulated on the opening lyrical theme by the legendary violinist and composer, Joseph Joachim.

The vitality and verve of the opening pervade the entire first movement, whose unified thematic structure shows the influence of Beethoven and Schumann. There is extensive dialogue between the cello and piano, and an ingenious four-part fugue leading into the recapitulation. The second movement, with its pensive, dark-hued atmosphere and sensitive theme in "Romanza" style, is clearly inspired by Mendelssohn - possibly by one of his "Songs without Words". (Strauss also composed a "Romance for Cello and Orchestra" in the same year, 1883). In the Finale, Strauss draws inspiration from Mendelssohn's "Scottish" Symphony and Wagner's "Parsifal" (which he had heard in Bayreuth). In addition, the movement reveals some unmistakably Straussian characteristics, including a cadence that foreshadows his own "Elektra", written fifteen years later. The F Major Cello Sonata was written for the Czech cellist, Hans Wihan, who gave the first performance in Nürnberg on the 8th of December, 1883. (Twelve years later, Wihan was the dedicatee of Dvorák's Cello Concerto). The Dresden premiere of the sonata took place two weeks later, with the cellist Ferdinand Böckmann and Strauss himself at the piano, after which the composer reported proudly to his mother, "My Sonata pleased the audience greatly, and they applauded most enthusiastically. I was congratulated from all sides, and the cellist, Böckmann, reflected quite wonderfully in his playing how much he liked the work and plans to play it quite soon again in his concerts."

Cesar Franck (1822-1890)
Sonata for Violin (Cello) and Piano (1886)

In contrast to Richard Strauss's youthful F major sonata, César Franck's A major sonata was written during the last decade of the composer's life and reflects the maturity of style which characterizes this highly creative period.

The A major sonata was composed as a wedding present for Franck's Belgian compatriot, the violinist Eugene Ysaÿe, who first performed it at his own nuptial festivities on the 26th of September, 1886. Three months later, on December 16th, these two artists gave the sonata's first public performance during a festival of César Franck's music presented by the Arts Club of Brussels. When the sonata was played a year later at the Société Nationale in Paris, the audience reaction was so enthusiastic that the finale had to be repeated. Since then, the A major sonata has emerged as one of the most important 19th-century compositions for violin and piano. Its enduring popularity has inspired several transcriptions for other instruments - flute, doublebass, organ (with mixed choir), and most often the cello, Franck's romantic writing benefiting from the depth of sonority and expressive range of the instrument. The first version for cello was arranged by a prominent French cellist and contemporary of Franck, Jules Delsart (1844-1900). The transcription heard on this recording is David Finckel's.

After a brief piano prologue based on an extended ninth chord, the cello introduces intervallic cells - major and minor thirds as well as a falling semi-tone - out of which the sonata evolves. This structural principle, cyclic form - found in several of Franck's later works, including the D minor Symphony (1886-8) and the D major String Quartet (1889) - unifies the sonata with thematic material which occurs from one movement to another. The cello's opening statement of the sonata returns in the Recitativo-Fantasia played by the piano, and a lyrical phrase in the middle of this movement reappears as the second subject of the finale, Allegretto poco mosso. Franck's dramatic use of cyclic form was possibly inspired by Beethoven and Schubert's technique of recalling previously heard themes. In addition, the influence of Liszt is apparent in the tempestuous mood and virtuosity of the Allegro second movement. The spirit of Bach can be felt in the third movement, Recitativo-Fantasia, and the famous finale is the culmination of all that has preceded it: the cyclic thematic material is skillfully recapitulated, and a flowing canon which harmoniously unites the cello and piano in lyrical counterpoint brings the A major Sonata to a masterful conclusion.

© Copyright by Steven Paul

Edwin Finckel (1917 - 2001)
Variations on a Theme "Willow Weep for Me"

One of many works written by Edwin Finckel for his son, these variations (on an original theme by Ann Ronel) explore the virtuosic possibilities of the cello in a jazz setting.  The premiere took place not at a cello recital, but at one of Edwin Finckels annual jazz benefit concerts, with the composer's son surrounded by a back-up band of jazz legends: Mousie Alexander, Al Cohn, Marky Markowitz, Sonny Russo and Milt Hinton.

Behind the Scenes
The Strauss and Franck Recording

by David Finckel

This recording, our second, was made in a church in New Jersey. We didn't have problems with the weather, as it took place in April, but the schedule was difficult. I had many simultaneous obligations to the quartet, so about as much as I could do every day for that week was drive out to New Jersey, play through once, and leave for some concert somewhere. The rest of the time Wu Han recorded solo literature.

I had fully expected not to be covered with enough material, but in the editing I discovered that I not only had more than enough from several run-throughs, but that all the takes had a first-time-through energy and excitement which is hard to capture in a long session. I therefore consider it lucky that my schedule actually got us a live concert feeling on the disc. We learned a lot about the process from making this record, and the performances continue to satisfy us.

The Strauss is one of our favorites. You'll hear musicologists and critics say it's not a mature work, etc., but I'd like to see any of them compose a work filled with such youthful beauty! The writing is fantastic for the cello, always in the perfect register. One can hear hints of Strauss's future style. I can hardly imagine a more uncomplicated, enjoyable musical experience than hearing this piece.

We cellists steal the Franck from the violinists. You can't find a better sonata anywhere - every movement is great. Many who get used to hearing it on the cello no longer like it on the violin.

The "Willow Variations" is on this disc because we wanted a full-length CD. Please forgive us for this duplication in our catalog. It actually makes a nice program though, and perhaps it will get you interested in my father's disc as well.