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Merry Mendelssohn

by B.A. Nilsson on February 22, 2012

Wu Han, pianist, Philip Setzer, violinist and David Finckel, cellist
Union College Memorial Chapel, Feb. 17

left to right: Setzer, Han and Finckel


The third movement of Felix Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio No. 1 is a scherzo of incredible vivaciousness, throwing all three instruments into a lively, virtuosic dance. The acrobats are leaping, tumbling in gravity-defying merriment, at any moment liable to lose their fantastic accord and explode into a devastating tangle. Yet the melodies are gossamer, the interplay among instruments is delightful, and it’s over in less than four minutes so you hardly know what hit you.

It’s a Mendelssohn specialty—there’s an even more furious example in his Trio No. 2—and it only works in the hands of players skilled enough to have no problems with the technique and timing required and thus can be relaxed enough to bring out the humor of the movement.

Violinist Philip Setzer and cellist David Finckel begin the Trio No. 2’s scherzo with an off-kilter canonic ditty. It sounds like somebody’s about to stumble. Another theme emerges that they play in harmony, with a charming trill in the middle. I swear their fingers hit that trill with micro-rhythmic unity.

Such moments are also nice because the two Mendelssohn trios they performed atUnionCollegelast Friday give the pianist a lot of fast finger time, and Wu Han gloried in it all like a kid in a sandbox. The strings have a lot of cantabile stuff throughout—and with Setzer and Finckel at the fore, the voices blend like the Everly Brothers.

Three years ago, this ensemble presented the two piano trios by Schubert, both of them profound and affecting works. Mendelssohn’s seem to aspire to a similar state, but you can see the composer grinning around the corners.

He starts off well in both of them, with lush minor-key themes to underscore a seriousness of purpose (hear also the Violin Concerto and the “Hebrides” Overture), but Mendelssohn has two other sensibilities that always break through: the lyrical songs-without-words writer, and the guy who can’t resist those fluffy scherzos.

But he has great tools for creating memorable effects. He knows, for example, how to alter the mood with a pizzicato string passage. He’s a dab hand at counter-melodies. And he clearly believes, when writing for the piano, “when in doubt, arpeggiate.” Those arpeggios flowed like spring runoffs, calling for the deft combination of precision and personality Han gives to a performance.

Effective interpretation requires a knowledge of the historical context of a piece. What would original audiences, more familiar with the musical forms and language of the time, have expected? How can you satisfy that and still make the music work for today’s more musically crowded ears?

Fake-out endings are a good example. Beethoven and Haydn loved them, which may explain why Mendelssohn’s trios are strewn with them. Just when you think a movement is about to end, a sudden modulation brings on a prolongation, which may even have gotten a laugh back in the day. These performers offered enough interpretive nuance to acknowledge such antics without overstating the case.

The second of the trios is more symphonic in scope than the first, and also makes more interesting use of the contrasting string timbres. Again, the piano has a busy time of it, but that didn’t stop the group from taking the piece at an even faster clip than the Heifetz recording, which is saying something.

By the middle of the second movement, however, which is a gorgeous ballad, you no longer were aware of the players as separate entities, so compelling was the emotional entirety of the performance.

Was Mendelssohn himself worried about his works being taken seriously enough? He throws a Lutheran hymn into the midst of the fourth movement, but can’t resist ending it with another characteristic dance.

The concert opened with Finckel and Han performing Mendelssohn’s Cello Sonata No. 2. It opens with a heroic (major key!) romp for the two instruments, about as Romantic-era a declaration as you’ll find. Despite the sense of grandeur thus conveyed, it has an overall feeling of peacefulness, particularly in the thoughtful third-movement adagio that sounds almost Baroque in its elegiac nature. But the Romantic surges back for a triumphant finale that showed how transparently these players work together.

Ovations are cheap in the Capital Region, but this one was deserved—and rewarded with a lively encore, the finale of Haydn’s Trio No. 32.