Philip Setzer, Wu Han, And David Finckel at South Mountain Concerts, with a Summer 2013 Retrospective of Chamber Music in the Berkshires

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David Finckel, Wu Han, and Philip Setzer
David Finckel, Wu Han, and Philip Setzer

Over the past months chamber music lovers have found a few important changes in their universe, above all the retirement of the Tokyo String Quartet and David Finckel’s departure from the Emerson. Both of these developments made themselves felt in the summer festivals. The Tokyo played their farewell concert at Yale’s Norfolk Chamber Music Festival, where they have been a fixture for years. It was a characteristically unsentimental affair, although one could see that fans had travelled considerable distances to fill the Norfolk Music Shed on that stifling summer evening. The Emerson played at Tanglewood with their superb new cellist, the distinguished soloist and conductor, Paul Watkins, and David Finckel appeared at the South Mountain Concerts with his wife Wu Han and violinist Philip Setzer of the Emerson, marking his even busier schedule as a member of a duo and trio. Listen to my interview with David Finckel and Wu Han for a full account of the changes in his life.

I always approach the Concert Hall at South Mountain with a certain reverence, because of the seminal contribution of the festival’s founder Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge in establishing chamber music in this country. I feel as if I’m approaching the very roots of this invaluable part of American culture. She founded the South Mountain concerts in 1918—which makes it the second oldest chamber music festival in the Berkshires. The Norfolk Chamber Music Festival originated in the program of the Litchfield County Choral Union with concerts held in the mansion of Ellen Battell and her husband Carl Stoeckel, son of the Yale School of Music’s first professor, the founders of the Union. The splendid Music Shed was built in 1906. The South Mountain Concert Hall is equally inspiring, built in 1918 of spoils from an abandoned mill in the area. The seats are pews from a church. While Norfolk is long and narrow, the Concert Hall is broad and shorter, with an exceptionally high ceiling penetrated close to its center by a lantern. The acoustics are astonishing, with clear, present sound audible at the back of the auditorium, where the seats are especially prized by long-term subscribers.

Sunday, September 29
Wu Han, piano
David Finckel, cello
Philip Setzer, violin

Beethoven – Trio in G Major, Op. 1, No. 2
Shostakovich – Trio No. 2 in E Minor, Op. 67
Dvořák – Trio in E Minor, Op. 90, “Dumky”

Wu Han and Finckel decided to keep their keys consistent in this program, with the early work of Beethoven (1793) setting it off in G Major, followed by two works in its relative minor, E. The Shostakovich and the Dvořák encompass a great range of moods, often with rapid, mercurial transitions between them, and the Beethoven is the classical model from which they emerge to follow their divergent paths. The twenty-three-year old Beethoven had arrived at the point of constructing an exemplary classical trio for keyboard, violin, and cello, still reflecting its models in Haydn, but radiating Beethoven’s own temperament. He had successfully assimilated the form and the idiom without creating any formal innovations of his own. Haydn had written far more daring works in the form himself. Beethoven’s trio is genial, high-spirited, and sociable, but it is substantial nonetheless, with an extensive solemn introduction and a long slow movement in E Major which delves grave depths with classical poise, provided a weighty infrastructure to the frisky scherzo and presto which follow it. The musicians’ surpassing precision in ensemble and subtle control of dynamics enabled them to reveal the work’s solid craft and playful interactions with ease and flexibility. In the glowing acoustic of the Concert Hall one could appreciate their fine gradations in dynamics as if one were poring over exquisitely carved medieval jewellery in one’s hands over an open table. This should not imply that their performance was in any way precious. It was robust and full of energy, but sophisticated in the most attractive way.

A similar sonic and acoustical miracle occurred at the beginning of the Shostakovich, which is a new work in the trio’s repertory. The unique sound of the violin and cello harmonics blossomed in the Concert Hall’s acoustic in a mesmerizing, otherworldly way, which immediately transported us into Shostakovich’s strange cosmos. The spare lines of counterpoint created a world of perfect form and structure, but a devastated one of death, ruin, and despair. The musicians totally identified themselves with the extreme state of mind represented in this and the following movements. They executed the furious scherzo with immense energy and power. They played the solemn, Beethovenian Largo—the most exalted, but also the darkest movement of the work—about as low as one can fall into despair—with a full realization of its beauty and misery. Their virtuosity supported them in the macabre final Allegretto, with its many strange sonorities and black humor, recalling the funeral march in Mahler’s First Symphony. This is a most welcome addition to their repertoire, which is already strong in Russian music.

Dvořák’s Trio in E Minor, Op. 90, “Dumky” is a curious work. It has been immensely popular since Dvořák first wrote it, but in terms of harmony and structure it is more subtle than it appears at first hearing, and its true qualities emerge only after repeated hearings. The composer’s affinity for Czech dance music and folk song found a direct expression in his Slavonic Dances, which were published as collections of individual dances, all written in elaborate ABA forms or variants thereof, which can be played in any selection or order that makes sense to the performers. Traditional folk tunes also found their way into his loosely organized suites. Finally, in works like his Piano Quintet, Op. 81, these folk elements were forged into traditional classical forms. The “Dumky” Trio lies somewhere between the Quintet and the suites. Written as a succession of six Dumky, or traditional sung laments, which originated in the Ukraine and Poland and consisted of a slow, plaintive section in a minor key followed by a fast section in a major key. In the Trio, Dvořák favored combinations of parallel majors and minors, eliminating the more complex tonal relationships encouraged in classical forms. In this way he presaged the approach to form Bartók adopted in many of his works. It has been observed that the first three movements have a definite tonal relationship, as their keys comprised a falling A Major triad (E minor/major, C# Minor, and A Major). If these suggest a single movement, as some have said, making the trio more like a traditional four movement work, it would be a rather complex one, with a slow, melancholy, inward conclusion. I’m not convinced this is of the first importance in understanding the work, but it is true that the last three movements have no tonal interrelationship (D, E Flat, C Minor and Major). This would not be the case in the most typical classical four movement works. For the music-lover this means that performers have the choice of letting the movements “hang loose” or of creating more of a feeling of coherence.

Structure and refinement prevailed in Wu Han, Finckel, and Setzer’s playing. One had a sense of coherence and dramatic continuum as one listened. Their tone was gorgeous, striking a balance between Dvořákian delicacy and richness, their rhythms lithe and precise, and their phrasing subtly inflected. There was no attempt to imitate folk-like coarseness, and I’m not sure that would work in this piece in any case. Dvořák gave his peasants baths and washed their costumes for the salon. Our trio accepted this, resulting in a performance that was exceptionally satisfying and even revealing.

The concert lived up to South Mountain’s tradition in every way, and the applause approached one of Dvořák’s furiants in energy. The musicians can only have been delighted by the enthusiastic comments and informed questions of the audience after the performance.

I hope organizers, musicians, and readers will be tolerant in my rapid survey of the summer season’s chamber and solo concerts I attended. A computer crash set me considerably behind, and it was impossible to review these at the time.

Tokyo String Quartet
Tokyo String Quartet

Norfolk Chamber Music Festival
Friday, July 5, 8 pm

Franz Joseph Haydn – Trio for Flute, Cello and Keyboard in G Major, HOB XV/15
Gustav Mahler – Quartettsatz for Piano Quartet in a minor
Franz Schubert = Rondo Brilliant for Violin and Piano in b minor
Anton Bruckner – Locus iste
Christus factus es
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – Adagio and Rondeau for Glass harmonic in e minor, K. 617
Alban Berg – Adagio for Clarinet, Violin, and Piano
Ludwig van Beethoven – Ten Variations for Piano Trio, Op. 121a, “Kakadu Variations”

Lost in the crash was my almost-complete review of a brilliantly thought-out program of Viennese music by members of the Artis Quartet and Yale musicians, including the always wonderful Hungarian pianist Peter Frankl. (This discussion will be much briefer! I’ll generally not list the programs in this retrospective, but I shall in this case, since it gives such an original perspective on the Viennese tradition.) True to their Viennese origins in their rich tone, the Artis Quartet are punctilious in their avoidance of the clichés of Viennese style. They rarely if ever resort to portamento, and their tempi are rigorous. Each player concentrates on bringing the utmost understanding and expression to their parts, above all cellist Othmar Müller, who, in the earlier works on this program had some extremely spare lines in his part, which he brought fully to life with temperament and precision.

The Haydn Flute trio, impeccably played by Ransom Wilson and Othmar Müller, with a robust, genial piano part from Peter Frankl. The performance was also refined and conscious of the sophistication of Haydn’s writing and its appeal to the connoisseurs in its first audience. From there we jumped ahead a century with Mahler’s rarely heard student work for violin (Peter Schuhmayer), viola (Herbert Kefer), and cello (Herr Müller) and piano (Peter Frankl). One could hear the overlapping, repeated phrases Mahler employed in the slow movements of his Fifth and Ninth Symphonies, although this is one of his earliest efforts. Schumayer and Frankl then gave a virtuosic, outgoing reading of Schubert’s Rondo Brilliant. Two Bruckner choral pieces represented the ecclesiastical side of Austrian music-making and the origins of the composers great symphonies. We had another opportunity to savor the musicianship of Ransom Wilson, joined by Timothy Gocklin, oboe, and the Artis players in Mozart late, Adagio and Rondeau for Glass Harmonica. Berg’s Adagio for Clarinet, Violin, and Piano mediated between that and Beethoven’s Kakadu Variations, which brought us full circle, back into the classicism of the Haydn that opened the concert, but at a later point in its development. The other of the Artis violinists, Johannes Meissel, played in the Berg and Beethoven. This landscape of Viennese music was indeed different from what we usually find in concert programs and valuable in itself—even more so, when it was so masterfully played in such a strong, forward-looking way.

As I said above the Tokyo Quartet’s farewell concert was unsentimental and straightforward. They simply played their very best, as they always have done…in the hellish humidity and heat of the season. The Haydn String Quartet in G, Op. 77, No. 1, combined the technical perfection Haydn’s clear lines demand with an infectious sense of good humor and fun. Bartok’s String Quartet No. 6 centered the program in Bartók’s economical and deeply felt writing, as formally perfect as the Haydn, and closed with a supremely focused and rhythmically exciting reading of Debussy’s String Quartet in G minor. Their brilliant, joyful reading of the Finale from Haydn’s String Quartet in G minor (Op. 74, No. 3) as an encore closed the concert and their forty-four-year career as a quartet.

In mid-August, the Emerson Quartet played at Tanglewood with their new cellist, Paul Watkins, a program reminiscent of the one I have just described: Haydn’s Quartet Op. 20, no. 3 and Beethoven’s first Razumovsky Quartet in F Minor were separated by Britten’s Quartet no. 3. Their playing was as solid and brilliant than ever, perhaps a bit more unanimous and warm than before. In the career of a quartet with a reputation for virtuosity and consistency, this was one of the most satisfying and exciting I have heard. All is well with the Emerson.

One concert at Tannery Pond I haven’t yet discussed was the Mirò Quartet, an ensemble of youngish men, resident at The University of Texas at Austin. As I understand, they haven’t played in the Berkshires very often, but Christian Steiner has had his ear on them for many years, and finally they appear, with Schubert, Puccini (?!), and Beethoven. The Mirò are a warm, enthusiastic group with a resinous, darkish timbre, whose manner of playing is winning, even infectious. I don’t know if it’s possible to give a thoroughly satisfying performance of Schubert’s Quartettsatz in C Minor, because it lacks the context of a full four-movement work, but the Mirò’s performance had rhythmic drive, rich, pungent textures, and heart. The Puccini Elegy for Strings, “Chrysanthemums,” was a funeral tribute to a friend and patron. A rarely performed work, it is surprisingly sincere and involving. The Mirò appreciate these qualities and gave it their best. Beethoven is a speciality of theirs, and the concert continued with Op. 95 and the Razumovsky in C Minor, Op. 59, no. 3. These were both open-hearted, engaging performances, as satisfying as one could hope for, without the last shave of technical precision we know from the Tokyo or the Emerson, but that is not what they’re striving for. The warm, intimate Tannery acoustic was exceptionally hospitable towards them, and they received an enthusiastic ovation from the audience which they had fully earned.

If my quick survey of the chamber music I heard this summer—a fraction of what was available—began with revered early institutions, it can end with an equally loved mid-twentieth century foundation, Marlboro, which carries on its great tradition of apprenticing musicians at the beginning of their careers with mature artists. I heard a concert which included Hindemith’s fascinating instrumental retelling of Mallarmé’s early masterpiece, Hérodiade, a miniature poetic scene. A mature work (1944), Hindemith’s narration give one the feeling of following Mallarmé’s lush symbolist narrative closely, but supporting it—rather oddly, it seemed—with good, solid German structure. The performance was superb. The concert concluded, like the first concert discussed here, with Dvořák’s “Dumky” Trio.

Another high point in the summer was a stunning concert which included Menahem Pressler, forging on at his advanced age after the retirement of the Trio.

Boston Symphony Chamber Players
Marcelo Lehninger, conductor
Menahem Pressler, piano
Carter – Wind Quintet (1948)
Carter – Figment III for double bass (2007)
Copland – Appalachian Spring (original chamber version)
Kurtág – Impromptu al Ongarese…to Menahem Pressler
Mozart – Piano Quartet in E-flat, K.493

The fine Carter performances spoke for themselves. I was delighted with the chamber version of Copland’s Appalachian Spring, which is a much stronger than the familiar version for full orchestra. Menahem Pressler’s contribution was especially to be treasured, much of it ad una corda. The exquisite miniature by Kurtág was commissioned by Pressler. It led immediately into Mozart’s beloved piano quartet, which could not have been more sensitively played, all at a subtle level.

Among solo recitals, the summer included a masterful evening with Garrick Ohlsson, which pretty much embodied everything that is great in the piano and everything that is great in music. Once again, I’ll give the program:

Beethoven – Piano Sonata No. 15 in D, Op. 28, Pastoral
Schubert – Fantasy in C, D.760, “Wanderer”
Griffes – The Night Winds, Barcarolle, and The White Peacock
Chopin Fantaisie in F minor, Op. 49
Chopin – Scherzo No. 2 in B-flat minor, Op. 31

These masterpieces of the piano repertory were centered around a set of enchanting vignettes by a sensitive American master, Charles Griffes, whose music resonates deeply with the spirit of the Berkshires as well as that of the Hudson Valley, which was closer to home for Griffes himself. Ohlsson is known for his consistency, because, when he creates a program, he perfects every bar as far as he can. This should not distract one from the subtlety of his playing. Each bar of these familiar pieces was full of telling insights expressed with the most refined phrasing, pedalling, or tone color. The Wanderer Fantasy was epic in scale, but often delicate in detail—one of the greatest realizations of it I have heard. After his youthful triumphs in Poland, where he is almost deified still today, Ohlsson keeps his Chopin fresh and alive. He showed me what a great piece the B-Flat Minor Scherzo actually is.

Paul Lewis’ all-Schubert recital of the previous evening was, to my mind a severe disappointment, rather an irritation, a hoard of wasps at my back. Its beginning was its peak. The first notes of Schubert’s C Minor Sonata actually won me over completely. In those few notes, Lewis persuaded me to follow him. I found his surging pace and his heavy pedalling appropriate in this sonata replete with ostinato figures and its tarantella finale. But this is the simplest of Schubert’s late sonatas. The A Major which followed requires a steadier meter and clearer textures, with as much differentiation of register within Schubert’s weave. I have found that the great performances of the late Schubert piano sonatas maintain some reflection of their origin in the fortepiano (e.g. Schnabel!), with its clarity and variety of timbre. The B Flat which followed the intermission marked yet another step downhill, with muddy, over-pedalled textures, mannered sensibleries, and, by that time, sloppy playing. By this point Lewis was tired. The octave interjections in the last movement were ill-timed, chords often banged out and harsh in tone, and the textures increasingly muddy. I’m not sure if Lewis calls his program by the obnoxious fashionable cliché, The Schubert Project, but this painful exercise was fully worthy of the name. One can play Beethoven’s last piano sonatas in one program, and many pianists have done so with great success, most recently Beth Levin, but Schubert’s are too long for that, and the pianist must forgo the repeats, which offer important and very beautiful transitional passages. In truth, I thought there was something rather fake in Lewis’ cloudy, pseudo-orchestral textures and blanket sentiment.

I hate to end this survey on such a sour note, but I didn’t know where else to put it…out by Hadrian’s Villa. If it is any consolation, my low opinion of Paul Lewis’ playing was in the minority. The audience loved it, jumping to their feet in adulation, including, I am told, some highly respected musicians.

In any case we can cheer ourselves with the season schedules for 2014, as they begin to appear. Tanglewood has already announced a Shostakovich marathon by the Emerson Quartet, a 50th anniversary concert of the Boston Symphony Chamber Players, and I suppose the new chamber version of Jack Beeson’s opera, Lizzie Borden should be included. It was sold out in Boston, and this will give the rest of us a chance to see it.

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