String trios with David Finckel and friends open the year at Wolf Trap

Sat Jan 12, 2019 at 2:23 pm
By Joan Reinthaler
Photo of Sussmann, Neubauer, and Finckel

Violinist Arnaud Sussmann, violist Paul Neubauer and cellist David Finckel performed Friday night at Wolf Trap.

In the chamber music family, the string trio of violin, viola, and cello is a sort of poor relation to the string quartet. Composers may give the string trio a nod early in their careers but then abandon it in favor of its more robust cousin. Mozart did write one near the end of his life, the Divertimento in E-Flat Major, the six-movement work that ended the program of trios brought to the Barns at Wolf Trap on Friday by violinist Arnaud Sussmann, violist Paul Neubauer and cellist David Finckel.

The concert continues the theme of “Taste of Vienna,” for the first season curated by Wolf Trap’s new artistic adviser, pianist Wu Han, who is married to Finckel.

The Divertimento may have been late Mozart, but like the early trios that preceded it in the program, Mozart seemed to be trying out all sorts of youthful ideas. The first movement is full of chromatic melodic lines, and the finale’s harmonies slither all over the place. The first of the two Menuetto movements is peppered with accents that jerk the graceful three-beat patterns into what feel like duple-time hiccups, still with Mozartean elegance, and the second is a light-hearted Hungarian dance.

The musicians took this on with a smooth assurance, seeming to highlight a composer testing the waters just outside his comfort zone. Accents were never heavy. Even the most extended sequence of harmonic wanderings aimed at some solid landing point, and the emphatic final chords sounded more inevitable than triumphant.

Beethoven’s String Trio in G Major (Op. 9, no. 1), which opened the program, is a piece that seems to have trouble getting started. After a couple of incisive chords, some tentative ascending lines dribble out from individual instruments. Sussmann’s violin dangled in delicious indecision on a string of rubato hesitations.

When Beethoven finally does unleash his forces the music blossoms into a cheerful romp full of runs and abrupt key changes. Lines echo each other, with some ensemble glitches here as phrase shapes varied from one instrument to another. Finckel’s finger-work sometimes sounded awkward, and the pervasive pianissimo dynamic made it harder for the lower two instruments to warm up their lines.

Beethoven’s Presto last movement is a sort of triathlon for the musicians, requiring speed, agility, and ensemble. For the most part, that challenge was met in this performance. It never sounded out of control; momentum was compelling, and notes blazed by dizzyingly. But it also never quite jelled as an ensemble, and it sounded hard to play. Of course it is hard to play, but the supreme challenge here is to make it sound easy, fun, and joyful.

Ernő Dohnányi’s Serenade in C Major is a big colorful amalgam of the romantic and post-romantic influences that the composer brought with him into the beginning of the 20th century, all molded by a creative Hungarian imagination. Its Scherzo rivals the Finale of the Beethoven trio for energy and excitement, rendered beautifully in this performance. Brahmsian textures, Ravel-like colors, urgent phrases, and voluptuous sonorities belied the fact that there were only three instruments playing.

Neubauer might have made a bigger, broader statement with the wonderful viola solo that begins the second movement. That reticence seemed related to the trio’s regrettable choice, throughout the evening, to play this often gutsy music too delicately.

Chamber Music at the Barns presents the St. Lawrence String Quartet 7:30 p.m. February 1. wolftrap.org; 877-965-3872


2 Responses to “String trios with David Finckel and friends open the year at Wolf Trap”

  1. Posted Jan 12, 2019 at 9:16 pm by David Winston

    This “rare treat” of seeing such accomplished musicians in Chamber Music playing three string trios was a “tour de force” and received well by seemingly all but one who attended—the reviewer. Wolf Trap’s Chamber Music séries has evolved over the years into one of the best in the world. I look forward to hearing it again when aired next year on WETA.

  2. Posted Feb 25, 2019 at 1:06 pm by Daniel S

    Agree with the previous commenter. This reviewer seems to only know how to nitpick things to the point of annoyance. Plus, it really reveals how little she knows regarding playing music. She must not be a musician.

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