in: Reviews

February 22, 2010

Schubert’s Piano Trios in Excellent Hands

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Making their Celebrity Series debut as a trio on February 21, violinist Philip Setzer and cellist David Finckel of the Emerson Quartet joined forces with pianist Wu Han yesterday afternoon at 3 pm at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall in a stellar performance of piano trios by Franz Schubert.

Both the B-flat major trio, D.898, and the E-flat major trio, D.929, date from the last year of Schubert’s life (1828), with drafts for the trio in E-flat dating from November, 1827. This is probably the trio that was performed on December 26th,1827, on January 28th, 1828, and in the only public concert devoted entirely to Schubert’s works, a commemoration of the first anniversary of Beethoven’s death held on March 26th, 1828. The significance of that occasion may have more to do with Schubert’s assignment of the opus number 100 to this trio than with actual compositional order. The B-flat trio was probably composed after the trio in E-flat, but when it was published posthumously in 1836 it received the still available opus number 99. While string quartets were serious pieces for connoisseurs, piano trios in the eighteenth century were primarily for home consumption by pianists, often amateurs, with accompanying violin and cello parts. Cello parts gradually became more independent, however, and the trios of Beethoven and Schubert have an almost symphonic approach. Schubert’s trios combine the “easy sociability” of amateur chamber music with the virtuosity and expansive structure of concert pieces for performance by professionals.

The B-flat trio, which started off the program, opens with a brilliantly incisive theme played in octaves by the violin and cello, with the piano marking time on offbeats and filling in the harmony. A modern piano, with its over-strung bass strings and full tone can easily overwhelm its string partners, but the three players found a perfect equilibrium in both dynamics and timbre that allowed us to appreciate the intricate exchange of themes and motives throughout. When the piano finally entered with the theme, pianissimo, against pizzicato accompaniment in the cello, the effect was magical. The tonal magic continued in the second movement, Andante un poco mosso, its songlike melody, heard first in the cello, then the violin, and finally in crisp octaves in the piano, contrasting with a Biedermeier waltz in the second section in which Wu Han’s precise and delicate voicing came to the fore. The Scherzo, a fast-moving country dance with Beethovenian offbeat accents, was rendered with wit and precision. The Rondo finale whisked us through many moods and harmonies, alternating a simple dance tune with delicate staccato passages and galumphing octaves that seemed to peter out after a crashing climax, only to reappear in a final Presto gasp.

The lengthy and harmonically expansive E-flat trio filled the second half of the program. Its four movements are characterized by sudden shifts to remote harmonies and distant reminiscences of dance and song melodies. The first of these appears near the beginning of the first movement, when a fortissimo scale passage in the piano leads to a repeated-note dance theme, pianissimo, that nearly gets lost amid triplet figuration but reappears in a final evocation at the end of the movement. The haunting melody that opens the second movement recalls a Swedish folksong that Schubert heard performed at the house of friends, the insistent march rhythm that accompanies it a reference to the Funeral March of Beethoven’s Eroica. The folksong melody reappears to play a substantial part in the finale, along with a transformed incarnation of the repeated-note dance theme from the first movement and a reminiscence of the funeral march. The expansive lyrical themes in the E-flat trio, particularly in the Finale, help to lay out large areas of musical time during which movement seems to be arrested. It is the task of the performers to allow these lyrical moments their full expansion without losing a sense of forward motion. Setzer, Finckel, and Wu Han accomplished this masterfully by steadfastly maintaining Schubert’s tempi while paying loving attention to details of articulation. The delicacy of Wu Han’s staccato repeated notes (easier by far on Schubert’s piano) deserves special mention, as do the beautiful tone and phrasing of Setzer and Finckel.

The commitment of these fine performers to the cause of chamber music is well known. All three have participated in the Marlboro Music Festival, and Wu Han and David Finckel, who also perform as a duo, are Artistic Directors of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. Let’s hope their appearance as a trio becomes a Celebrity Series staple.

Virginia Newes lives in Cambridge. She was Associate Professor of Music History and Musicology at the Eastman School of Music.

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