Han-Finckel-Setzer Trio, The Piano Trios of Franz Schubert, Vancouver Playhouse, April 17, 2011

Han Finckel Setzer Trio Tristan Cook.jpg

The final concert of the Friends of Chamber Music concert season featured a regrouping of artists heard earlier in the season performing one of the jewels of romantic chamber music: the two Schubert piano trios.  The trio consisted of pianist Wu Han, previously seen with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, and her husband, cellist David Finckel with violinist Philip Setzer, both members of the Emerson Quartet who played for us just over a month ago.

The two piano trios of Schubert (not perhaps forgetting the early Notturno for piano trio as well) are remarkable for their combination of buoyant energy, charm, and tender expression, all brought together with a compelling lyrical flow.  While the earlier concerts involving these artists were excellent, this one proved to be much less successful.  What we got here were very methodical performances, strong and structurally cogent, but seriously lacking charm and variety.  I do not mind objective approaches to these works but here I think that these ‘masterpieces’ were made to seem more repetitious and less delightful than they in fact are.

From the opening of the first (B flat) trio, one could sense the problem: a strong, and beautifully articulated opening, then let down immediately by an absence of true Schubertian lyrical feel from the soloists.   In the first soloistic passage for the violin, Philip Setzer was seemingly timid and dutiful in his phrasing, not pushing out with either the tender expression or imagination required.  In the cello’s comparable passage, David Finkel could not settle into natural Schubertian phrasing, being either too angular or over-projected, or both.  Wu Han typically substituted precision and dramatic force for sheer sparkle. So the movement ended up being fairly episodic: a sequence of strong-projected dramatic resolutions with little overriding lyrical feel to link them and give them importance.  I thought the Scherzo’s of both works particularly suffered from this approach, ending up almost formulaic in their lack of sparkle and variety.

The slow movements on the other hand did have a strong continuity to them, though were possibly not tender or intimate enough for some tastes.  Certainly the enigmatic march of slow movement of the second (E flat Major) trio, probably the greatest single movement here, was built with considerable power and unity, but the wonderful key modulation at the end was not magical enough: pretty but not sublime.  One distraction was the over-conscientious way in which the cellist and violinist brought out their countless soft imitative exchanges.  Since many of these are fairly trite, it is not clear why they wanted to give them emphasis.

Both final movements had concentration and drive but not very much else.  Frankly, I found them somewhat unrelenting and over-emphatic (especially in the E flat Major), playing up the power of the writing at the expense of its ingenuity.  But that seems to be what these performances were mainly about.  As one innocent listener asked me:  ‘Is that really the way Schubert’s piano trios are supposed to sound’?   It is telling that someone who is not very familiar with the music could ask that question.

© Geoffrey Newman 2011