Sunday, February 21, 2010

Review: Han-Setzer-Finckel trio

Feb. 20, University of Richmond

Reviewed by Francis Church

Franz Schubert’s two piano trios bespeak the glowing joy that marked Richmond’s first preview of spring. The trio of Wu Han, piano; Philip Setzer, violin; and David Finckel, cello, completed the picture on Saturday night with sparkling, balanced performances of the two pieces before a three-quarters-full house at Camp Concert Hall of the University of Richmond's Modlin Arts Center.

The listeners deserve their share of the credit, as well. They had to negotiate a campus gridlocked because of a basketball game. “What will happen when football season arrives?” some asked in pre-concert conversation.

But the rewards came early and often.

First was the pianistic virtuosity of Han. She was quite simply a wonder to see and hear. The music ebbed and flowed with beauty, life and majesty, as the score dictated. Her eyes darted back and forth with her collaborators. We heard none of the banging to which some pianists are inclined in these trios.

Then, there was the cello of Finckel, Han’s husband who shares with her the duties of directors of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in New York. Not only shunning the facial and physical histrionics of so many of today’s cellists, he simply let the music do the job. His solos in the slow movements of both trios were wonders of lyricism. And he deftly managed the mishap when the hairs of his bow came loose midway in the first movement of the first trio, and he had to halt the proceedings and go backstage for a replacement..

Lastly, Setzer, who is Finckel’s colleague in the Emerson String Quartet, was a bedrock of strength throughout the evening. Occasionally, he was somewhat understated in his expressiveness, but that was to be preferred to overplaying. His dialogue with Finckel in the slow movement of the first piano trio, the one in B-flat major, Op. 99/D. 898, certainly was one of the great moments of the night.

Of the two trios, the second in E-flat major, Op. 100/D. 929, emerged the stronger. The exuberant opening allegro featured the rapturous piano work of Ms. Han; some of the chords were Beethoven-like in their power (Beethoven died in 1827, only a year before the young Schubert died in November 1828 at 31). The cello solo in the andante reminded one of the composer’s earlier song, “Death and the Maiden.” It reappears in the final movement. Is the composer telling us something of his own passing the year after he completed this work?

Occasionally, these trios display the composer’s inclination to write to “heavenly lengths,” as one commentator put it. But in the hands of the Han-Setzer-Finckel trio, they emerged fresh, refreshing and new, as Robert Schumann put it of the first trio: “One glance at Schubert’s trio -- and the troubles of our human existence disappear and all of the world is fresh and bright again.”

After this winter of our discontent and the campus gridlock, we got Schubert’s (and Schumann’s) message.

Francis Church, former music critic of the Richmond News Leader, is a cellist active in orchestral and chamber performance.