Schubert trios given thrilling advocacy at Mandel Hall

Sat Feb 20, 2010 at 1:22 pm

By Wynne Delacoma

When it comes to exciting classical music, bigger is not necessarily better.

True, there’s nothing like a large group of singers thundering to the climax of a Verdi chorus or a 100-plus orchestra hitting the Mahlerian heights.

But a chamber recital featuring violinist Philip Setzer, cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han Friday night at the University of Chicago reminded us that musical excitement can come in small packages. The program, showcasing Schubert’s two piano trios, offered a thrilling combination of technical prowess and almost telepathic communication onstage. Throughout the evening we felt the performers’ sheer delight in making music together.

They certainly know one another well. Setzer is a founding member of the Emerson String Quartet and Finckel its long-time cellist. Finckel and Han, who are married, also perform regularly as a duo and are artistic directors of both Chamber Music at Lincoln Center and Music@Menlo, a California-based chamber festival.

The audience at Mandel Hall for this concert, offered as part of the University of Chicago Presents season, was primed for something special. Schubert completed only two works for violin, cello and piano:  the trio in B-flat major, Op. 99, D. 898, and the trio in E-flat major, Op. 100, D. 929. Written close to the end of his astoundingly productive, tragically short life, they are meaty, beguiling works. The trios contain the kind of memorable, song-like melodies and colorful harmonic invention that have made Schubert one of the world’s most beloved composers.

Setzer, Finckel and Han explored every corner of this fertile terrain. Their voices were perfectly balanced.  Each was clearly present and more than willing to take the spotlight when appropriate. But at no point did Han’s lucid, often playful piano, Finckel’s darkly textured cello or Setzer’s crisp violin distort Schubert’s delicate musical balance.

There was a merry camaraderie in the interplay among the three in the opening work, the B-flat major trio. In the scherzo, Han tossed out a zesty, stammering theme, all but daring the violin and cello to take up the idea and run away with her. In the more serene, elegant middle section, they slowed down, playing together like well-behaved children mindful of their manners. But Schubert’s saucy opening tune soon emerged again and they were off and running, good manners trumped by boisterous high spirits.

They were equally engaged in the concert’s more introspective moments. In the B-flat major trio’s slow movement, Finckel’s cello set out the main theme like a tender lullaby, supported by Han’s sweetly pulsing piano and Setzer’s murmuring violin. The mood was more stern in the E-flat major trio’s Andante. The martial beat of Han’s piano had a sharp bite that added a hint of tragedy to the cello’s low, expressive song.

These trios are full of sudden stops and changes of direction, and in these transitions the three musicians seemed to stop breathing and then exhale like a single organism. The music unfolded like a spontaneous, heady conversation among three intimate friends. Performances don’t get more exciting than this.

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