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Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Schubert a Trois

Classical Stages Dept.: It’s always a treat when Wu Han and David Finckel are joined by Philip Setzer for a piano trio concert, but none was more gratifying than their 2009 visit to Schenectady’s Union College to perform the trios by Schubert, which they also recorded. Here’s my review.


BEETHOVEN CAST A DAUNTING SHADOW over Schubert’s life and work, so it’s all the more amazing to note the quality of the compositions the latter churned out. The two piano trios, written during what seem to be about the last six seconds of his life – Schubert snuffed it at 31, his last few years a frenzy of composing – are pinnacles of the repertory, their debt to Beethoven’s work eclipsed by their tunefulness and originality.

David Finckel, Wu Han, and Philip Setzer
Pianist Wu Han and cellist David Finckel made the latest of many appearances at the Union College Concert Series last Sunday, this time with one of Finckel’s fellow Emerson Quartet members: violinist Philip Setzer. The ambitious program comprised the two Schubert trios, lately also recorded by this group.

These are works that have endured a wide range of praise and condemnation, the latter typical of the lunacy of classical music’s great blowhards. Schubert played fast and loose with such things as the oh-so-sacred sonata-allegro form that formed the structural basis of most opening movements written during the powdered-wig decades.

Like Beethoven, he spun melodic fragments into intricate, hypnotic variations, but Schubert was just as likely to erupt into a new melody. And in the realm of tunesmithing, he was inexhaustible.

The two piano trios are examples of Schubert’s fluid formsmanship. In the first, two melodies dominate the opening movement’s structure. One is somewhat martial, with triplets giving way to a dotted-note figure. The other, not surprisingly, is lyrical. The variations have as much to do with rhythmic figures as with melody, set off with chromatic transitions and what I term the Schubert pause: a short break to effect a mood change.

The opening movement of the second trio is more intricate, weaving three themes and their variations into unexpected places, with achingly beautiful conversations between piano and strings that give way to a slow movement that’s even more painfully pretty. The poignant melody comes from a Swedish folk song (“Time is running out ... the chance for love is lost”) goes through a stormy variation based on a falling two-note figure.

Both works have exuberant Scherzos; both finish with complicated movements that reach well beyond the traditional Rondo form. And both, but especially the second trio, demand virtuosity from the players, enough so that they’re rarely presented together in concert.

That these performers have the chops for it – well, we knew that going into the concert, which is why we and so many others got there early and filled the hall. The string players have worked together for decades in a renowned quartet; Finckel and Han are husband and wife. (Their daughter turned the piano-part pages.) There’s such a keen sense of simpatico among the players that you could feel the occasional unison playing of violin and cello as one gorgeously timbred note.

It’s fairly routine in these trios for the strings to state a theme, then have it repeated on the piano (or vice-versa). Texturally, the units couldn’t be more different. But Han plays with such lyricism when necessary that these back-and-forth moments seemed less about opposition than exploration. Cascades of sweetly harmonized triplets poured forth like waterfalls; rugged two-handed chromatic runs shook like thunder.

And when Finckel gave voice to the melancholy theme of the second trio’s second movement, the others lay back and let him sing. A good ensemble finds a common voice; a superior ensemble knows how to give and take. These were the skills that made this concert a transcendent experience.

Wu Han, pianist, Philip Setzer, violinist, and David Finckel, cellist
Union College, Feb. 15

Metroland Magazine, 19 February 2009

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