At South Mountain, the best the world has to offer


PITTSFIELD — On a beautiful end-of-summer afternoon, while immigrants swarmed across Europe and wildfires ravaged California, several hundred people gathered Sunday in the rustic setting of South Mountain to listen to three piano trios by Beethoven.

Unreal, you could say, Out of touch. Escapist.

More like a chance to experience the best the world can offer rather than the worst. To be in touch with a great mind and soul from the past, in beautifully realized performances, rather than the blather of politicians.

In a way, pianist Wu Han, violinist Philip Setzer and cellist David Finckel picked up where their counterparts Joseph Kalichstein, Jaime Laredo and Sharon Robinson left off two weeks before. The K-L-R Trio ended with the third movement of Beethoven's Opus 70, No. 2, as an encore. This week's successors played the whole work, along with its companion piece, Opus 70, No.1 (the "Ghost"), and Beethoven's Opus 1, No. 1.

Among other things, the program was a lesson in Beethoven's musical development. The youthful first trio, from 1794, takes its time in the telling, with virtual boundary lines between sections. By 1808, when Beethoven got to Opus 70, he was writing more penetrating, tightly knit works, the chamber works displaying some of the heroic quality of the contemporaneous Fifth Symphony. (There are five piano trios in all, culminating in the 1810-11 "Archduke.")

The differences in style and weight were impressively clear in the players' treatment. They are old chamber-music hands and colleagues. Setzer is a member of the Emerson String Quartet, and Finckel a former member; Wu Han is Finckel's wife and frequent musical partner and co-director of various chamber series.

The skill and experience told right away in the infectious energy and witty dialogs of Opus 1. (A quibble: The finale's humor could have been more pointed.) Coming to the "Ghost," the players generated high momentum in the fast movements and mined the middle movement's recurring theme for full spectral drama.

Why is Opus 70, No. 2, not as often played as the "Ghost"? It's a powerful work, expansive and muscular by turn — strikingly so in this performance — with a not-so-slow slow movement that the players invested with the charm of a minuet. The finale rose to exuberant heights.

There was no encore; none was needed.

Chamber groupings that form for a day or a week don't always click, as Yo-Yo Ma's Brahms trio program at Tanglewood last summer showed. But these three players know the music and one another. The playing was worthy of the spectacular weather.


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