There has been quite a bit of apocalyptic talk in the press of
late about the demise of the major classical recording labels.
For those hell-bent on nostalgia, this is a bad thing, but in
the grand scheme of things, the (rumored) death of big labels
like Decca and the über-consolidation of companies like RCA and Sony, coupled with the
relative ease and low cost of producing recordings, might just
leave the paths clear for artists to produce their own material
on their own terms. I see little but good in such a scheme.
years ago cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han and friends
founded just such an independent label, Artist Led. Every
aspect of the process of making and marketing a recording is left
completely to the artists, giving them the freedom to choose their
repertoire, oversee the engineering and mastering process and
design the packaging and promotion material. What has resulted
is a small but impressive catalogue of recordings of mainly standard
repertoire. The quality of the playing and production has been
consistently high, and this present issue is no exception.
Setzer and David Finckel of Emerson String Quartet fame are joined
by Finckel’s pianist wife Wu Han to perform these two late masterpieces
from Schubert. Given that the publishers assigned them consecutive
opus numbers, they have been looked upon over the years as musical
twins. Yet, there are striking differences between the two works;
the B-flat trio being mostly sunshine and the E-flat more serious
and stormy, just to mention the obvious. Composed very near the
time of Beethoven’s death in 1827, Schubert took his task very
seriously indeed, trying and succeeding to produce works with
the depth and scope of Beethoven’s Archduke and Ghost
99 begins with a rollicking and joyous Allegro, notable for its
catchy tunefulness and its well worked-out construction. Given
Schubert’s tendency to run on a bit in longer-form works, this
movement could have been an indication of a new maturity in Schubert’s
writing, a maturity which alas was cut short by his untimely death
in 1828. The lyrical Andante is as winsome as any song
that Schubert produced. The tunes are simply sublime, and the
lovely forays into the minor mode are breathtakingly elegant.
The jaunty Scherzo is a fitting contrast to the lush second
movement, and the work ends with a virtuosic rondo.
Op. 100 trio was of significant importance to the composer. It
received its first performance in December of 1827 and was performed
again as the centerpiece of an all-Schubert concert given in Vienna
on 26 March, 1828, the anniversary of Beethoven’s death. The concert
was a watershed for the young composer, who alas did not live
to enjoy the would-be fruits of its success. Grander and more
serious than the Op. 99 trio, the opening movement, although rhythmic
and in a major key, very quickly turns serious and takes very
little time to start exploring the minor mode and other somewhat
distant key centers. The brooding second movement is almost funereal
with its constant pulsing, march-like rhythm. The scherzo is a
bit more light-hearted but still retains a bit of minor key gloom.
Perhaps it is safe to say that Schubert was trying very hard in
this work to make an artistic statement, and thus while it certainly
contains music of great beauty, the beauty is there to make a
point, to express ideas and not simply to entertain.
are artists who obviously know each other inside and out. Their
ensemble is so finely tuned that one could almost believe there
was one person playing all three parts at once. Of particular
merit is Wu Han’s ultra clear pianism, marked by dozens of shades
of nuance and color, and by clarity of execution that falls like
crystals on the ear. Finckel and Setzer, who for years now have
made music together, perform like twins, bringing off some splendid
duets, particularly notable in the Op. 99 scherzo. I was moved
by the contrast of tone and musical “attitude” for lack of a better
word that the players displayed between the two works. There is
the same clarity and attention to detail, but it is palpable that
these musicians have gotten inside Schubert’s head and are channeling
his intentions to a modern audience.
recorded sound is quite warm and handsomely balanced and worth
special notice here. We are never overpowered even in the loudest
passages. Although recorded in a fairly sizeable room, the sound
is intimate and close and gives the illusion that the musicians
are right in your living room playing for your personal enjoyment.