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Schubert from Half of the Emerson & the Other Half of One of 'Em

by John W. Lambert

May 8, 2010, Durham, NC: Choices, choices! It’s maddening when two of the season’s most attractive events happen to take place concurrently. And it’s even dicier when they are within a stone’s throw of one another. Such was the case on a warm Saturday at Duke, where the West Campus hosted a rare performance of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis in the Chapel and the Han-Setzer-Finckel Trio offered both of Schubert’s piano trios in Reynolds Theatre. (We’ll have a review of the Missa soon.) At least there’s usually enough parking at Duke, but this time some latecomers were directed to remote lots. At $5 a head, the parking group made some good money – too bad it can’t go directly to support arts programs. The Schubert concert, the last of this year’s Chamber Arts Society offerings, presented by Duke Performances, began a bit late, but the reason may well have been last-minute ticket sales for a concert that most savvy music lovers surely figured would have been fully booked well in advance.

There were not many empty seats as pianist Wu Han, violinist Philip Setzer, and cellist David Finckel came onto the platform for the Trio in B Flat, D. 898. Han, done up in a flowing silver top and black slacks, was wearing positively dangerous-looking spike heels – also in silver – with some of the longest-pointed toes in captivity. She breezed on stage in the company of her other half – the Emerson String Quartet's cellist – and one of the Emerson’s violinists. (Setzer alternates in the position of first violin, and this quartet has retained all of its founding members, so he’s not the “senior” one, either!) And then, with a flourish, we were off on a magical musical ride.

This first trio, thought to have been composed in 1827, is among an astonishing number of undisputed masterworks that streamed from Schubert in his last year of life. (It was published eight years after he died, in 1836, as Op. 99).

This trio is one of the great warhorses of music, and there are few touring ensembles that haven’t played it here and elsewhere. It lasts a little over 40 minutes – 43 on this occasion, with all the repeats. It’s not for nothing that Schubert’s Ninth Symphony is called “the Symphony of heavenly length” but the term can be applied to these trios, too, and to the Quintet, the late sonatas, etc…. Some might prefer the shortened version, without the repeats. But it has gradually dawned on most musicians and many music lovers, too, that if the repeats are in the score, they’re indicated for a reason – and in fact, sometimes, performances that omit them can seem longer than those that include them.

On this occasion, no one seemed to be checking his or her watch. The music glowed from within and unfolded with a wonderful mixture of inevitability and appropriateness that did justice to all four movements. Once or twice one might have wanted a bit more cello – but it’s possible that where one sat influenced, slightly, one’s aural perceptions. The playing was remarkably clear, precise, and incisive, and it’s hard to imagine any seasoned artists doing more with phrasing and dynamics than these masterful players. In the slow movement, time seemed suspended – is there anything more sublime than this, aside perhaps from the slow movement of the second trio?!

The first half ended with cheers and many people standing. And there was quite a buzz in the crowd during the intermission.

Part two was devoted to the Trio in E Flat, D.929, composed in November 1827 and first performed on December 26 of that year. (It was published, as Op. 100, the following fall, in Leipzig, the only work published outside Austria during Schubert’s lifetime.)

It’s a bit bigger than the first, and there exist two versions of the finale, both of which have been recorded; on this occasion, the visiting artists chose Schubert’s own slightly pruned version, which works just fine – no one should feel deprived! – that took about 47 minutes to traverse. Again the music-making was exceptionally fine, with the kind of interplay only artists who love what they do and admire and respect each other can achieve with any kind of regularity. The slow movement was again an exceptional experience bordering on the spiritual, and the finale was not unlike the impression created by an expert skier flying down a very fast mountain trail.

There was an even greater uproar and the artists were recalled several times. Chances are some might have thought an encore was in order but in fact Schubert left only two other pieces for piano trio – the Sonatensatz, D.28 (1812), and the Nocturne, D.897 (1827). The second is particularly lovely, but there’d been enough Schubert in one sitting, and it would have been hard to top those two trios in any event.

These artists have recorded both trios on the ArtistLed label operated by Finckel and Han; see http://www.artistled.com/Recordings/CD_SchubertTrios.htm.

For the record, this was the second time in four years that both trios appeared on the same program in the Triangle – the last time was November 12, 2006, when the artists were pianist Ignat Solzhenitsyn, violinist Soovin Kim, and cellist Sophie Shao.

Prior to the concert, Duke Performance’s Aaron Greenwald announced next season’s Chamber Arts Society lineup: Brooklyn Rider, the Emerson Quartet, Trio Solisti, Opus One, the Pacifica Quartet with clarinetist Anthony McGill, the St. Lawrence String Quartet with cellist Andrés Díaz, the Takács Quartet, and the Borromeo Quartet with pianist Gary Graffman. Tickets will go on sale in June, and we’ll have details in our calendars in due course.

   
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