SCHUBERT: Piano Trio No. 1 in B-flat Major, D. 898; Piano Trio No. 2 in E-flat Major, D. 929 – Wu Han, piano/Philip Setzer, violin/David Finckel, cello – ArtistLed 10802-2  78:22 [www.artistled.com] **** :

Having been a frequent guest of the Menlo Music Festival here in California, I can attest to the affection that permeates collaborations among the principals on this disc, both for the composer and for each other. Recorded at The American Academy of Arts and Letters in New York City, April 2008, these miraculous works transcend either joy or pathos and occupy the space of quasars and black holes, the stuff of new galaxies. If the B-flat Trio seems genial, extroverted, optimistic, there lies beneath a fearful asymmetry of measures and metrics, an inventiveness that plays with aerial acrobatics of feeling.  The melancholy E-flat Trio takes its imprimatur from Beethoven: brooding, philosophical, angry, virtuosic, even volcanic. If the B-flat Major Trio sings of clear waters, the E-flat Trio sings dark fire.

The immediacy of attack, the visceral presence of the playing–courtesy of recording engineer Da-Hong Seetoo–captures us in the B-flat Trio, the resonance of Han’s Hamburg Steinway, Setzer’s 1714 “Jackson” Stradivarius, and Finckel’s throaty cello tone (from Samuel Zygmuntowicz, 1992). Once the ensemble establishes the initial, driving, rhythmic impetus and its tender counter-theme, the music proceeds limpidly to its balanced, songful development with delicate, graduated fervor. Finckel’s suave cello sets the tone of the Andante, which may well be construed a barcarolle. The lied basks in an unruffled serenity until a brief, nervous bank of clouds agitates the azure sky. The da capo has Setzer and Finckel in magic dialogue, under which a constant ripple of keyboard light glides us to Empyrean shores. The Scherzo and Trio flash by athletically in silky, syncopated flourishes. Led by some dainty, crisp filigree from Han’s Steinway. The last movement pays infectious homage to Haydn, crossing rondo and sonata-forms, and applying a 3/2 “gypsy,” rhythmic formula and diaphanous sonorities to make Brahms envious.

“Celebrating” the first anniversary of Beethoven’s death, the E-flat Trio invades our sonic and mental space with disturbed energies, the unpleasant counter to that urn of Keats, which equated truth only with beauty. Lugubrious descents into the harmonic maelstrom alternate with moments of poignant longing, and even allusions to Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony offer more pain than heroism. That Stanley Kubrick utilized the awesome march figure from Schubert’s Andante con moto in Barry Lyndon (1975) helped to etch that epic film on the mind of any who saw it. Our musicians deliver this anguished moment of resignation in a nobly, poised manner; even the central crisis and its furies rings clear and all the more tragic for its careful delineation of individual lines. The Scherzo, a Viennese delicacy, makes an airy foil to the deep mourning of the Andante, Setzer’s sweet violin providing more than enough musical solace to heal a wounded soul. Lyrical and virtuosic, the last movement Allegro moderato asks the trio to deliver both declamatory and rapid-fire, Haydnesque figurations; but few moments are so compelling as the return of the march theme as two bleak reminders of Man’s Fate. A performance to rival the Busch brothers/Serkin inscription of two generations ago, this splendid disc is a Schubertiad requirement.

— Gary Lemco