In classical music, referring to a composer as "great" or "canonic" might be done with the best of intentions. But a kind of calcification takes place, freezing that composer into something abstract and distant, like the little plaster busts that sit on the top of household pianos.
Franz Schubert might suffer more than most from that predicament. But this concert of his late piano trios provides a welcome glimpse into a man armed with a vivacious personality and a dynamically creative voice. As a young adult, Schubert would begin his days with a ferocious, even ecstatic focus on composing, only to pivot into friendly, relaxed socializing in the afternoon and evening. That duality, not surprisingly, found its way into the music that poured from his pen in the last year of his life — a period that produced a surprising number of masterworks, from the songs for which he is so well-loved to the "Great" Symphony No. 9.
In the midst of it all, there are two piano trios — substantial and complex, but also highly personal and expressive. The first of them launches eagerly into its opening theme like a taxi screeching to a halt, with a smiling Schubert yelling from the drivers' seat: "Get in!" It may not be clear where you're going, but you already know it's going to be entertaining. An elegant, touching slow movement allows for a bit of introspection before ramping up through the dance of the third movement to a disarming finale. It's noble on the surface, but Schubert occasionally stops time with something dreamy and ethereal.
Piano Trio No. 2 begins with some of the nobility from No. 1, but with a cleverly constructed theme that Schubert manipulates to keep listeners on their toes. This Schubert might be your congenial drinking buddy, but then again might be the bringer of Beethoven-like storms. The emotionally fitful ride closes in grandeur, exposing the serious side of Schubert's bittersweet music.
For the full immersion experience, the Jordan Hall audience in Boston was fortunate to have half of one of today's most probing and successful string quartets — the Emerson Quartet — and the spouse of one of those members. Pianist Wu Han, violinist Philip Setzer and cellist David Finckel seem to click into the intimate communication and artistic vision that helps unlock the real Schubert behind the incredible music.
- Piano Trio in B-flat Major, Op. 99
- Piano Trio in E-flat Major, Op. 100
- Wu Han, piano
- Philip Setzer, violin
- David Finckel, cello