PITTSFIELD — Why climb ordinary mountains when you can go to the glittering summits?
Some such thinking seemed behind the program that violinist Philip Setzer, cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han played Sunday afternoon to open the South Mountain season. If you asked chamber music lovers to vote for the two greatest piano trios, they'd probably rank Beethoven's "Archduke" and Schubert's Opus 100 — precisely the works on this program — at the top.
And if you're going to present the greatest music, why not get the best players? As performed by the three friends and South Mountain regulars in glorious September weather, the two familiar pieces were old masterworks newly re-created.
Schubert's andante movement, for example, usually comes across as a kind of dirge. Here, it started off in a cheerful bounce, only to turn stormy in the middle. Then, when the cheery theme — now in earnest — returned at the end, its descending two-note figure spelled tragedy. Schubert, and the performance, drove the message home when the telltale figure reappeared twice in the work's concluding moments.
Happy or sad, or both at once: That's Schubert. In the "Archduke," Beethoven faces the world with Olympian grandeur. Schubert wanders and dreams. Melancholy is somewhere not far in the distance.
The two works fit together in another way.
Schubert, always under Beethoven's influence, presented his 1828 trio in a concert marking the first anniversary of Beethoven's death. The Schubert trio and the "Archduke" alike were written amid a health crisis. Beethoven, in 1811, was turning totally deaf, though you'd never know it in the "Archduke." Schubert, in the next to last of his 31 years, was already in physical decline.
Both despaired. Both surmounted. Looking back, Schumann could famously declare that Schubert's Opus 100 "passed across ordinary musical life of the day like some angry manifestation of the heavens."
Placed first on the program, the broadly paced "Archduke" performance tapped into the coiled energy contained in Beethoven's accents — often off the beat — and dramatic shifts in dynamics. The adagio had a rolling gait, with a stomping peasant dance in the middle. The andante's variations ranged through many regions before returning to the prayer-like opening. It, in turn, burst exuberantly into the finale.
The two string players are connected by the Emerson String Quartet; Setzer is a current member and Finckel a former member. Wu Han, Finckel's wife, is his frequent chamber music partner and the co-director with him of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. As an encore — really needless after this engrossing program — the group played the fourth movement of Dvorak's "Dumky" Trio. Many aficionados would rank right it behind the "Archduke" and Opus 100 in stature.