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Monday, February 09, 2009

Peerless Schubert

Franz Peter SCHUBERT (1797-1828)

Piano Trio in B-flat Major, Op. 99, D898 [36:08]

Piano Trio in E-flat Major, Op. 100 D929 [43:29]

Wu Han (piano)

Philip Setzer (violin)

David Finckel (cello)

Recorded at the American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York, April, 2008.

ARTIST LED 10802-2 [79:37]

There has been quite a bit of apocalyptic talk in the press of late about the demise of the major classical recording labels. For those hell-bent on nostalgia, this is a bad thing, but in the grand scheme of things, the (rumored) death of big labels like Decca and the ΓΌber-consolidation of companies like RCA and Sony, coupled with the relative ease and low cost of producing recordings, might just leave the paths clear for artists to produce their own material on their own terms. I see little but good in such a scheme.

Some years ago cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han and friends founded just such an independent label, Artist Led. Every aspect of the process of making and marketing a recording is left completely to the artists, giving them the freedom to choose their repertoire, oversee the engineering and mastering process and design the packaging and promotion material. What has resulted is a small but impressive catalogue of recordings of mainly standard repertoire. The quality of the playing and production has been consistently high, and this present issue is no exception.

Philip Setzer and David Finckel of Emerson String Quartet fame are joined by Finckel’s pianist wife Wu Han to perform these two late masterpieces from Schubert. Given that the publishers assigned them consecutive opus numbers, they have been looked upon over the years as musical twins. Yet, there are striking differences between the two works; the B-flat trio being mostly sunshine and the E-flat more serious and stormy, just to mention the obvious. Composed very near the time of Beethoven’s death in 1827, Schubert took his task very seriously indeed, trying and succeeding to produce works with the depth and scope of Beethoven’s Archduke and Ghost trios.

Opus 99 begins with a rollicking and joyous Allegro, notable for its catchy tunefulness and its well worked-out construction. Given Schubert’s tendency to run on a bit in longer-form works, this movement could have been an indication of a new maturity in Schubert’s writing, a maturity which alas was cut short by his untimely death in 1828. The lyrical Andante is as winsome as any song that Schubert produced. The tunes are simply sublime, and the lovely forays into the minor mode are breathtakingly elegant. The jaunty Scherzo is a fitting contrast to the lush second movement, and the work ends with a virtuosic rondo.

The Opus 100 trio was of significant importance to the composer. It received its first performance in December of 1827 and was performed again as the centerpiece of an all-Schubert concert given in Vienna on 26 March, 1828, the anniversary of Beethoven’s death. The concert was a watershed for the young composer, who alas did not live to enjoy the would-be fruits of its success. Grander and more serious than the Op. 99 trio, the opening movement, although rhythmic and in a major key, very quickly turns serious and takes very little time to start exploring the minor mode and other somewhat distant key centers. The brooding second movement is almost funereal with its constant pulsing, march-like rhythm. The scherzo is a bit more light hearted but still retains a bit of minor key gloom. Perhaps it is safe to say that Schubert was trying very hard in this work to make an artistic statement, and thus while it certainly contains music of great beauty, the beauty is there to make a point, to express ideas and not simply to entertain.

These are artists who obviously know each other inside and out. Their ensemble is so finely tuned that one could almost believe there was one person playing all three parts at once. Of particular merit is Wu Han’s ultra clear pianism, marked by dozens of shades of nuance and color, and by clarity of execution that falls like crystals on the ear. Finckel and Setzer, who for years now have made music together, perform like twins, bringing off some splendid duets, particularly notable in the Op. 99 scherzo. I was moved by the contrast of tone and musical “attitude” for lack of a better word that the players displayed between the two works. There is the same clarity and attention to detail, but it is palpable that these musicians have gotten inside Schubert’s head and are channeling his intentions to a modern audience.

The recorded sound is quite warm and handsomely balanced and worth special notice here. We are never overpowered even in the loudest passages. Although recorded in a fairly sizeable room, the sound is intimate and close and gives the illusion that the musicians are right in your living room playing for your personal enjoyment.

1 comment:

Opera Gal said...

I interviewed Artist Led a few years ago when I was at an FM station...I should dig that dat tape out and give it a listen.