in: Reviews

February 21, 2012

Musical Power Couple & Friend Do Mendelssohn

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Two months ago, cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han were named Musicians of the Year by Chamber Music America. For those unfamiliar with that prize and magazine, think Time magazine’s Couple of the Year. This longtime Musical Power Couple, married with a seventeen year old daughter, do virtually everything (except play in an orchestra!), and they do it with extraordinary success and élan. One of their ventures is a piano trio with the superb violinist Philip Setzer, a colleague of Mr. Finckel in the Emerson String Quartet. The Finckel, Han, Setzer Trio, who played under the auspices of The Celebrity Series of Boston on Sunday, February 19th, had last performed the two Schubert piano trios in Jordan two years before. This time, they returned to play Mendelssohn’s Cello Sonata and his two piano trios.

Coincidentally, Mr. Finckel is also Musician of the Week, having announced that at the end of the 2012-2013 season, he is stepping down from his platform at the Emerson String Quartet, which he helped found thirty-four years ago. To many listeners, the Emerson without David Finckel is quite unimaginable, but he has written eloquently about his projects that call for more of his attention, and about his enthusiasm for his successor.  In the past decade Mr. Finckel , mostly with Wu Han, has branched out into so many areas of music that to read of them is to wonder how any mortal — or even two of them — can accomplish so much musically with such finesse and with so few—if any—detractors. Mr. Finckel and Ms. Han have been originals in presenting, recording and teaching music and yet the naturalness of what they have done makes one wonder why no one had thought of these ideas before.

Saturday’s all-Mendelssohn program began with the lovely D Major Sonata for Cello and Piano (1838). Mr. Finckel dressed and behaved exactly as he did when the duo played in Rockport last summer —  a black suit, red bow-tie and quiet smile. Wu Han also wore the same unforgettable outfit — a wide-striped, flowing tunic, a mélange of secondary colors (light green, purple, orange, and aqua) with jazzy matching heels.  Mr. Finckel, when playing solo, sits very still. Music memorized, he looks out into the distance as if he’s in a trance. The couple has been playing together for a long time, and it shows. Their ensemble was perfect; they barely looked at each other except for an occasional smile. These are people who are totally comfortable with each other; the music is in their fingers, brains, and hearts. If they did nothing but magnificent duo playing, it would suffice, but here are a few of the things this Dauntless Duo do: They founded and now run classical music’s first musician-directed recording studio, ArtistLed, with 13 acclaimed CDs out so far. They run The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and founded and now run the California music festival, Music@Menlo, and they have overseen both of their recording partnerships. They commission, play, and record new works for cello and piano. They are passionately dedicated to teaching and coaching chamber music to young artists, most recently in Korea and Taiwan under the auspices of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. Need more? Mr. Finckel, who studied with Rostropovich for nine years, has made a hundred brief and thoughtful “Cello Talks” on the internet which encompass every facet of cello technique. He also writes an engaging blog.

The Cello Sonata No. 2 in D Major was written four years before Mendelssohn’s death, combines the composer’s deep roots in Classicism  with the emotional tumult of the Romantic period. Wu Han played this, as well as the trios, extremely well, which is no small feat. They are awash with cascading flurries of notes, thousands and thousands of them, and it seemed she nailed every one of them. I had heard her with Mr Finckel at Rockport last summer, and was far more impressed with her playing this time. She sat behind and to the left of the cello, and it seemed she’d look at him occasionally just to get re-energized. That they have perfect telepathy at this point was obvious. His pizzicati in the second movement were just beautiful; his vibrato is a joy to hear. They seemed to have been having great fun (one hopes!) in the last fast virtuoso movement.

The audience certainly had fun, and continued to do so through the rest of the program which Philip Setzer joined. Mr. Setzer is best known, perhaps, as one of the two first (and second) violins of the Emerson String Quartet. He and Eugene Drucker have shared these positions since the quartet was formed; neither could decide who should play first violin, and both were just as happy playing both positions. Like Mr. Finckel, who studied as a youth with his father, Mr. Setzer studied as a child with his parents, who were violinists in the Cleveland Orchestra. If Wu Han and her cellist husband have played it all, the same holds for Mr. Finckel and Mr. Setzer; their Quartet (winner of 8 Grammys) has played and recorded the bulk of the quartet literature to great acclaim. Both men are very elegant performers.

Mendelssohn’s two piano trios were played musically and technically for all they were worth, but they still do not approach the heights of musical accomplishment that you find in the corresponding two piano trios of Franz Schubert. Luckily you can hear this excellent trio play all four pieces on ArtistLed recordings.

Cleverly, the trio chose a fun encore, the Allegro from Haydn’s Piano Trio A major, Hob. XV:18. It showed off not only their impeccable chops, but their lively senses of humor.

Susan Miron is a book critic, essayist, and harpist. Her last two CDs featured her transcriptions of keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti.

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