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In perfect harmony: (l-r) Finckel, Han and Setzer.


By B.A. Nilsson

Wu Han, pianist, Philip Setzer, violinist, and David Finckel, cellist

Union 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 originality.

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 this group.

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 inexhaustible.

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 two-note figure.

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.

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