A Journey Through Madison's Classical Music Scene
Feb 27, 2012
09:41 AM
Classically Speaking

Wanted: Name for an Off-the-Charts Piano Trio

Wanted: Name for an Off-the-Charts Piano Trio

Violinist Philip Setzer is a founding member of the Emerson String Quartet, and cellist David Finckel joined the group in 1979. Along the way Finckel met pianist Wu Han, and their artistic union soon became one of marriage. Perhaps as a way of performing more often with Han, Finckel recruited Setzer to join them in a piano trio.

Which means that the at least half the Emerson String Quartet will remain intact for awhile, as Finckel just announced two weeks ago his retirement from the Emerson in the summer of 2013.

The “trio without a name” already has released the two Schubert piano trios on Finckel and Han’s label, ArtistLed, and the two Mendelssohn trios come out this week. Last Friday night, an enthusiastic, but far under capacity, Union Theater audience experienced their snap-crackle-pop face to face.

The concert opened with the added bonus of Finckel and Han in the Cello Sonata No. 2 of Mendelssohn. As the work unfolded, one had to smile at the quote in the program bio from a German critic who hailed Finckel as “one of the top ten, if not top five, cellists in the world today.” To experience the richness of Finckel’s tone and the breadth of his musicality inevitably places the quote in the category of damning with faint praise. Until, perhaps, one realizes that cellists who spend their lives in an ensemble — even one so renowned as the Emerson — tend to be more anonymous than, say, the Yo-Yo Mas of the world.

Han is Finckel’s match, of course, but really had her mettle tested in the piano trios. Setzer’s violin was all sweetness in the high range and warmth below, a perfect complement to Finckel’s timbral variety. But what stands out is the collective unanimity of phrasing and dynamics, and an interpretive sweep that finds the understated but still potent ardor in outer movements of the Op. 49 and Op. 66 Trios, the graceful lullaby and “songs without words” quality of the slow movements, and the always astonishing execution of Mendelssohn’s laser-focused, lightning-laced scherzos.

After the genuinely earned pop-out-of-your-seat ovations following the finale of the Op. 66, Han got a big laugh by asking if we agreed that she should get paid by the note. But then we got what we hoped for: A dollop more of this luscious artistry, via, as Han said “after the meal of Mendelssohn, we can only offer a dessert of Haydn,” which was a light and airy movement from his A Major Trio.

There’s only one thing these three need — a name. Then again, maybe not. The musical world is already buzzing about Finckel/Han/Setzer.

Photo: Philip Setzer, Wu Han, David Finckel

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About This Blog

Years before I contributed my first classical review to the Los Angeles Times in 1988, I started a class in music appreciation for adults that had one aim: to put a few cracks in the “ivory tower elitism” I found pervasive in the classical music world since my boyhood days. Whether as a critic, program annotator or band director, that goal has never changed. After all, Mozart and Beethoven and the gang wrote their music for people like you—not critics or professors!

After growing up in the suburbs of New York City, and spending twenty years in and around Los Angeles, the last twelve years here leave me more amazed than ever at the musical riches of Madison. I’m a cheerleader at heart, because I always think more people would become classical fans if they’d give it a chance—but I’m also quick to tell you when you’re not getting your money’s worth. Classically Speaking brings you as much news and as many reviews as possible, and I hope you’ll join me for a fabulous musical journey.

–  Greg Hettmansberger
Follow Greg on Twitter @ghettmansberger

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