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Posted on Sun, Feb 14, 2010 : 9:48 p.m.

Rackham hosts stunning performance of Schubert piano trios

By Susan Isaacs Nisbett

Music lovers couldn’t have had a nicer Valentine than the one pianist Wu Han, cellist David Finckel and violinist Philip Setzer delivered Sunday afternoon at Rackham Auditorium under University Musical Society auspices.

There were no flowers, no candy, just Schubert’s two heavenly piano trios, plus an encore of the slow movement from one of Mendelssohn’s two essays in this genre, the d minor piano trio.

When repertoire like this, which speaks to the heart so magnificently, is played as it was Sunday by three players with hearts and hands so attuned to the music and to each other, it’s enough to make you weep.

And it was definitely our turn to cry. At the piano, Wu Han — co-director of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center with husband Finckel, who is also a member of the Emerson String Quartet with violinist Setzer — was fully occupied with Schubertian passages that were alternately powerful and crystalline in their beauty. No time for the tears that she described having kept her away from playing these gems in public for so many years.

But it was worth letting those trios simmer so long, as Sunday’s performance (and the trio’s recent Schubert recording on the ArtistLed label) showed.

It was also worth pairing them together in concert, where the differences between the two — Schubert’s only works in this genre, written in a short time of one another at the end of his brief life — come clearly to the fore.

The B-flat trio, is, in its divine length, a hopeful work, a sort of love song for life. In Wu Han, Finckel and Setzer’s account, it unfurled briskly, but unhurriedly, full of sweetness and expressive pianissimo passages and, for all the emotional impact, a certain restraint. Setzer and Finckel sang to each other, to Wu Han, and to us, in the blissful, and then somewhat turbulent andante. The return to the first quiet section of this movement, led by Setzer, his bow whispering over the violin’s strings, was breathtaking. The scherzo led to a rollicking, round-dance finale in which color was king and architecture queen: repeated bell tones the piano seemed to toll time’s passage, and as the players brought the dance back one last time, it seemed a ghost of itself, a remembrance of life’s dances past.

The E-flat trio is a far darker work, though Schubert, in one of his brilliant manipulations of shadow and light, morphs melancholy to pure triumphant, golden sunshine in the final bars of its last movement. The heart of the piece is the andante, the achingly melancholy and beautiful theme of which Schubert brings back in the finale. Finckel, first to utter it, shaped it memorably; his colleagues responded with equal feeling. The whole afternoon was like that, a reminder of how glorious great music, played greatly, can be.