Dallas — When the average classical music aficionado is asked to list the best pianists, violinists, or cellists in the world, the same names crop up again and again. Although each fan’s exact choices will vary, almost always the named musicians are the soloists who perform recitals alone or accompanied, or play concertos with major orchestras.
It’s less common for chamber musicians to be mentioned in the same breath with Ax, Ma, Bell, and the like. In some cases, though, they should be, as Monday evening’s masterful performance by cellist David Finckel, pianist Wu Han, and violinist Philip Setzer demonstrated. These three musicians perform together in a variety of permutations. Finckel was, until last year, the cellist with the Emerson Quartet, and Setzer still plays with that ensemble. Han and Finckel are a married couple who regularly concertize together as a duo. Thus, it was possible last season to hear each of these musicians in DFW, in other combinations. Han and Finckel were in Fort Worth in March (see the review here), while the Emerson Quartet with new cellist Paul Watkins was in Dallas in April (see the review here). In any grouping, all three are brilliant. They present a systematic yet passionate approach that sets the bar for how chamber music should be played.
In Dallas for the first time as a threesome, the Finckel-Han-Setzer Trio performed only two pieces on the Dallas Chamber Music Series, but they are two of the most substantial pieces in the piano trio repertoire: the Mendelssohn C Minor Trio, Op. 66, and the Brahms B Major trio, Op 8. The C Minor is the less commonly performed of the two trios Mendelssohn wrote; his D Minor Trio is heard far more frequently. To me, anyway, the C Minor seems unjustly neglected. This late-Classical trio includes a gorgeous second-movement Andante followed by a wild ride of a Scherzo, and Wu Han herself discusses the religious themes in the piece in her recent interview with TJ here.
In Monday’s performance, the trio attacked the first movements with intensity—the climactic chord near the end of the first movement Allegro was almost a religious apotheosis, ecstatic and beautiful. They then took the Scherzo at a quite a quick tempo—not too fast to be musical, but certainly faster than many groups would be capable of.
The Brahms trio, a Romantic explosion, was also in spots almost unbelievably intense. There were moments where Han was just a bit overwhelming to the two string players, and others where Setzer, perhaps trying to outdo Han, played with a bit too much pressure. But these are such minor issues in a performance that was, in the aggregate, outstanding and memorable. The third movement Adagio, particularly, which in the wrong hands can simply be boring, here was a meditation of sparse, spare grandeur.
The encore was a movement from Dvořák’s “Dumky” trio. I would happily have stayed in the auditorium for another hour to hear them play the whole piece.
Each musician produces an extraordinary tone—Finckel, in particular, produces sound that is the ideal for the cello, luscious, dark, and gorgeous. What they can do individually, though, is surpassed by what they do together. This group’s great gift is for ensemble—it is clear that they have thought through the musical ideas they wish to convey, then they articulate those ideas, almost always, as if they are one voice. It is vanishingly rare to find a group with more uniformity of execution of musical ideas than this one. When one of these three musicians echoes a phrase that another has just played, it sounds as if the same person is playing, albeit on a different instrument.
In short, Monday’s performance was extraordinary. If you have a chance to see any of these musicians performing, together or separately, go.