Wu Han-Setzer-Finckel Trio, Apr 9

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By Scott MacClelland

PIANIST WU HAN is undoubtedly one of the great chamber music artists of our time. She and her husband, cellist David Finckel (left above), have long been described as a “power couple” in their field, founders of the celebrated Music@Menlo festival in Menlo Park/Atherton and, since 2004, artistic directors of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in New York.

Media puff you may say, but on many levels well-deserved. As displayed on Sunday at Carmel’s Sunset Center—alas to a half-filled house—Wu Han was consistently brilliant in three Beethoven piano trios yet, with the Steinway lid fully open, never dominated her colleagues. They were Finckel and violinist Philip Setzer—both founding and longtime members of the acclaimed Emerson String Quartet—Finckel now retired.

Wu Han, a sparkler of a personality in any context, opened the matinee with a 15-minute spoken intro to this second set—the first group of three were heard during the Carmel Music Society’s previous season—of the complete Beethoven piano trios, acknowledging that they had flown in after playing all six works on Saturday in Orange County. On the upside, there was no glossing over the rich, often surprising, frequently amusing substance of the music, as has been known to happen with even the best ensembles when they’ve allowed themselves to go on autopilot. Still the interpretive edge seemed to soften in the grand “Archduke” Trio that concluded the program. Fatigue perhaps? Or, once established in grandeur, does a more circumspect, less heaven-storming concept make the grade? Of one thing I am sure: Beethoven’s own fortepianos were never powerful enough to realize the force of his imagination.

(By the way, Patrick Castillo’s printed program notes make no mention of the five other piano trios, mostly without opus numbers but certainly recorded and performed, and none of the violin sonatas, as if they didn’t matter.)

The three trios heard Sunday span the composer’s career, from his Op 1, No 2 in G, from 1793, to the Op 97 “Archduke” of 1811, and sandwiching the Op 70, No 2 in E-flat  published in 1809. As such, they represent changes in style, the first and last being more straightforward in conserving their ideas, the Op 70 more teasing and digressive, a sharp contrast from the Baroque example in which a single movement would retain the same character throughout. (While the classical style established numerous innovations, most of them stem from Baroque models, many of which continued among latter-day descendent works through the more conservative composers of the 19th century.)

All of the works on this program contain four movements, the Op 1 and Op 70 lasting 30 minutes in performance, the Op 97, 40 minutes. Each of the 12 movements come with surprises, rhythmic as often as melodic. The steeplechase final presto of the Op 1 absolutely sizzled, drawing the most bravos of the afternoon. In his early 20s, Beethoven had already surpassed Mozart and Haydn in sheer invention. In her remarks, Wu Han had pointed out features of the Op 70 that were more like Schubert; its skipping second movement is a double variations. The distribution of material gave the strings a bit more independence than in the Op 1. In this regard, the Op 70 actually explored more possibilities than the Op 97. But the “Archduke” aims higher and delivers both grandeur on an unprecedented scale and some weirdly surprising turns, as in the spooky bits in the scherzo, otherwise the biggest toe-tapper of the concert. The andante cantabile third movement, a hymn barely disguised, expanded into a broad variations, its mood suggesting the great prayer from the late A Minor string quartet Op 132. The finale of this marvelous piece seemed a little too happy-go-lucky to fit the context.

Although these musicians have plainly committed this repertoire to memory, they resisted the temptation to show off. Uniquely among them, Wu Han read her part from a digital tablet, turning pages with her left foot on a pedal.