perfect harmony: (l-r) Finckel, Han and Setzer.
Han, pianist, Philip Setzer, violinist, and David Finckel,
College Memorial Chapel, Feb. 15
Beethoven cast a daunting shadow over Schubertís life and
work, so itís all the more amazing to note the quality of
the compositions the latter churned out. The two piano trios,
written during what seem to be about the last six seconds
of his lifeóSchubert snuffed it at 31, his last few years
a frenzy of composingóare pinnacles of the repertory, their
debt to Beethovenís work eclipsed by their tunefulness and
Pianist Wu Han and cellist David Finckel made the latest of
many appearances at the Union College Concert Series last
Sunday, this time with one of Finckelís fellow Emerson String
Quartet members: violinist Philip Setzer. The ambitious program
comprised the two Schubert trios, lately also recorded by
These are works that have endured a wide range of praise and
condemnation, the latter typical of the lunacy of classical
musicís great blowhards. Schubert played fast and loose with
such things as the oh-so-sacred sonata-allegro form that formed
the structural basis of most opening movements written during
the powdered-wig decades.
Like Beethoven, he spun melodic fragments into intricate,
hypnotic variations, but Schubert was just as likely to erupt
into a new melody. And in the realm of tunesmithing, he was
The two piano trios are examples of Schubertís fluid formsmanship.
In the first, two melodies dominate the opening movementís
structure. One is somewhat martial, with triplets giving way
to a dotted-note figure. The other, not surprisingly, is lyrical.
The variations have as much to do with rhythmic figures as
with melody, set off with chromatic transitions and what I
term the Schubert pause: a short break to effect a mood change.
The opening movement of the second trio is more intricate,
weaving three themes and their variations into unexpected
places, with achingly beautiful conversations between piano
and strings that give way to a slow movement thatís even more
painfully pretty. The poignant melody comes from a Swedish
folk song (ďTime is running out . . . the chance for love
is lostĒ) goes through a stormy variation based on a falling
Both works have exuberant scherzos; both finish with complicated
movements that reach well beyond the traditional rondo form.
And both, but especially the second trio, demand virtuosity
from the players, enough so that theyíre rarely presented
together in concert.
That these performers have the chops for itówell, we knew
that going into the concert, which is why we and so many others
got there early and filled the hall. The string players have
worked together for decades in a renowned quartet; Finckel
and Han are husband and wife. (Their daughter turned the piano-part
pages.) Thereís such a keen sense of simpatico among the players
that you could feel the occasional unison playing of violin
and cello as one gorgeously timbred note.
Itís fairly routine in these trios for the strings to state
a theme, then have it repeated on the piano (or vice-versa).
Texturally, the units couldnít be more different. But Han
plays with such lyricism when necessary that these back-and-forth
moments seemed less about opposition than exploration. Cascades
of sweetly harmonized triplets poured forth like waterfalls;
rugged two-handed chromatic runs shook like thunder.
And when Finckel gave voice to the melancholy theme of the
second trioís second movement, the others lay back and let
him sing. A good ensemble finds a common voice; a superior
ensemble knows how to give and take. These were the skills
that made this concert a transcendent experience.