A delightful afternoon of Mendelssohn in Boston from Finckel, Wu Han and Setzer

February 20, 2012
By Keith Powers

David Finckel, Wu Han and Philip Setzer performed music of Mendelssohn Sunday afternoon at Jordan Hall.

“I didn’t ask the Celebrity Series to pay me by the note,” said pianist Wu Han just before the encore Sunday afternoon at Boston’s Jordan Hall. “But now that’s my wish.”

Indeed, in case anyone forgot why the call them “piano trios” instead of “violin” or “cello” trios, this performance of the first two Mendelssohn trios—coupled with his D major cello sonata—removed any misconceptions. Joined by cellist David Finckel and violinist Philip Setzer, Wu Han  propelled this performance not only with countless thousands of notes, but a sure sense of phrasing, even when she was not occupying the principal melody.

She began the afternoon with husband and longtime collaborator Finckel in the Cello Sonata No. 2, in D, Op. 58. A bravura first movement, with two expansive themes set out by the cellist and a driving chromatic accompaniment on the keyboard, set the tone. In the second movement (Allegretto scherzando) the piano sketches out a delicate melody, and the cellist accompanies pizzicato in the A section. In the central section, a long, flowing cello line floats in from a different world altogether, before both players return to the impish opening gambit.

Of particular note is the third movement Adagio, which begins with hymn-like strummed arpeggios in the piano, generously pedaled by Wu Han to show off extravagantly its chorale underpinnings. Finckel added short statement in between each chord, and then launched a lamenting line for the movement’s second theme, which sang itself out until the fourth movement began, attacca, and brought the work to its conclusion with a series of inventive gestures.

The couple was joined by Finckel’s Emerson Quartet compatriot Setzer for the Trio No. 1 in D minor, Op. 49. This week’s announcement that Finckel will leave the Emersons this year after three decades to devote more time to performances like this is truly bittersweet, with this concert making up the “sweet” part.

The first movement is a clever reworking of the sonata form with melodies not exactly stated and then shared, but melded together throughout. With the cellist beginning with a long cantabile line, and the piano behind it with a syncopated accompaniment, the violin is left to keep us rooted with a drone figure. There were some balance issues at times with Setzer barely audible at points during the movement.

The Scherzo was another wonder, with the trio accenting not just slight phrases with comic upturns, but substantial, witty diversions. An ominous phrase in the piano declared the fourth movement, a dotted rhythm trending down the scale. A brief step up to major just before the conclusion muddies the waters, leaving the listener to know that much is transpiring behind the notes.

After intermission, the ensemble offered the C minor trio, Op. 66, less grandiose in expression but still full of Mendelssohn’s creative excesses. Once again the Scherzo made the most striking impression in the hands of these players. A dotted escapade, passed around the trio, opens the movement, the middle section makes it seem noble, and then the return quickly reminds that it was all just for fun. The finale takes the unusual approach of picking up the Scherzo’s melody, but quickly transforming it into a much more substantial dialogue. Wu Han, as throughout, drove the action.

A one-movement A major trio from Haydn—“a little sorbet,” Wu Han called it—was served as an encore.

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