Monday, February 18, 2013

Chamber Music Evening

The Han-Setzer-Finckel Trio was in town yesterday as part of the Friends of Chamber Music series of concerts. The trio, comprising pianist Wu Han, violinist Philip Setzer and cellist David Finckel, essayed Felix Mendelssohn’s towering masterpiece, the Trio No. 1 in D minor, and Antonin Dvořak’s Trio in F minor, Op. 65. Mr. Finckel and Ms. Han opened the concert with Richard Strauss’ rarely performed Cello Sonata in F Major, Op. 6. Setzer and Finckel are no strangers to Vancouver audience, as they regularly appear as members of the Emerson String Quartet.

Richard Strauss’ Cello Sonata is a charming work, written when the composer was seventeen. The idiomatic piano writing is similar to that of the composer’s youthful, but unfortunately also rarely played, Piano Sonata, Op. 5. In the third movement, there was a particularly charming exchange between piano and cello. At this point in his compositional career, Strauss’ style is still firmly rooted in the early 19th century, with the result that the music sounded almost like Schumann.

There are pieces of music whose “message” will come across regardless of the performance; there is also music that calls for a greater effort in the part of the performers to bring alive. The Strauss Sonata belongs, I think, to the latter category. To my ears, the performance needed greater projection. The ensemble between pianist and cellist was flawless, but I guess I was wishing for a bit more “soloistic” playing from the individual player, a bit more abandon.

In spite of his genius, many of Mendelssohn’s music sound, to me, effective rather than moving. There are of course notable exceptions – the E minor Violin Concerto, the Scottish Symphony, the Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the work performed last night. In these works, one feels that the composer was divinely inspired. Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio in D minor is one of the crown jewels of the chamber music repertoire. As individual musicians and as an ensemble, the trio certainly met the musical as well as (considerable) technical challenges the work calls for. Mendelssohn was himself a virtuoso pianist, and the piano part in this trio is as demanding as the composer’s piano concerti as well as the Variations Serieuses, Op. 54. Pianist Wu Han played her part as if these difficulties do not exist. My only minor quibble would be a slight heaviness in the piano playing in the second movement, there was a sense that the pianist was marking the beat rather than projecting the line of the music.

In the second half of the programme, the trio performed Dvořak’s very Brahmsian F minor Trio, Op. 65. The influence of Brahms is most apparent in the first and fourth movements, with the result that, especially in the first movement, the music sounded like the composer was too much in the shadow of his mentor. I thought that Dvořak’s own compositional genius did not really come through until the second movement, with the third movement sounding particularly inspired. The performance by the trio was spectacular. I was especially moved by the exquisite violin playing of Philip Setzer in the gorgeous Adagio movement, where the composer favoured the violinist with an unbelievably beautiful melody.

With such distinguished musicians performing, it was a little disappointing to see a half-filled hall last night. A friend, a long-time subscriber to the series, told me that there used to be waiting list for subscription to these concerts. The sparse attendance to this wonderful performance serves once again as a reminder of what role the arts play in our society today. I do hope and pray that the Friends of Chamber Music, now in its 65th season, will be able to continue to bring to our stages world class chamber ensembles performing music from this, the purest form (and most democratic) form of music making.

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