Philip Setzer, Wu Han & David Finkel
The Carmel Music Society wound up its 2015-2016 concert season yesterday afternoon with a dazzling exhibition of chamber music playing at its best. Since David Finckel and Wu Han in May 2014 played a magnificent recital of cello and piano works ending the CMS 2013-2014 season, their artistry is well known to local audiences. On this occasion they were joined by violinist Philip Setzer, a founding member of the Emerson String Quartet, and together they performed the first of two concerts that will present the six Beethoven Piano Trios. On this occasion we heard three of Beethoven’s Piano Trios, Op. 1, Nos. 1 & 3, and the Trio in D Major, Op, 70, No. 1 (often called the “Ghost” because of its spooky second movement). During the Carmel Music Society’s 2016-2017 Season the three musicians will return to perform the remaining three trios, including the famous “Archduke” Trio.
Speaking from the stage, Wu Han gave us some interesting historical perspective by commenting on Beethoven’s special relationship with his most important patron at the time, Prince Lichnowsky, who provided Beethoven with living quarters in his palace in Vienna plus financial support of an annual stipend, until the relationship soured in 1806. Beethoven dedicated the Opus 1 Trios to Lichnowksy and performed them in 1793 for the Prince’s family and aristocratic friends. This was Beethoven’s formidable and impressive debut in Vienna, the most important music center in Europe at the time.
Hearing two of the three Opus 1 Trios on this occasion, we can appreciate the powerful impression they must have made at their first hearing. Observing pianist Wu Han navigate her way through the difficult piano parts, we also had ample evidence of what a brilliant pianist Beethoven must have been in his prime. We can also assume that Han’s polished and powerful mastery combined with the elegant playing by her ensemble partners Finckel & Setzer produced for us a performance far superior to what Prince Lichnowsky’s audience must have heard in the debut performance in his home, for the original performance would most likely, by today’s standards, have been under rehearsed and performed on mediocre instruments.
Wu Han’s precision, passion and elegance knows no limits. Every phrase, every passage, was polished to perfection and succeeded in bringing out the best in Beethoven’s score. Violinist Philip Setzer’s solid, musical playing and David Finckel’s rich tone (what a fantastic impression he made in the Adagio slow movement of the Op. 1, No. 1 Trio) all came together to draw us into the music and hold our attention from beginning to end. The powerful performance of the C Minor Trio, Op. 1, No. 3 was especially moving with its Sturm und Drang agitation and dazzling virtuosity. I will long remember the charming performance of the Andante cantabile con variazoni movement and the terrific windup of the finale Prestissimo movement.
After intermission we heard the final work on the program — the Trio in D Major, Op. 70 No. 1 “Ghost” — and once again we were mesmerized by the fabulous music making of these three fine musicians. It just doesn’t get any better than this.