South Mountain: Han-Finckel-Setzer in chamber program of angst and ecstasy


PITTSFIELD -- If ever a composer had reason for brutality in music, it was Shostakovich, a man beset by personal and political demons.

Each of his symphonies and chamber works seems a memorial to victims: friends, casualties of Stalinism, Jews, the war dead. In the end, he also mourned his own torments as an artist haunted by neurosis and Stalinist demands for political conformity.

At South Mountain on Sunday, the splendid trio of pianist Wu Han, cellist David Finckel and violinist Philip Setzer sandwiched Shostakovich's harrowing Piano Trio No. 2 between cheerful works by Beethoven and Dvorak. Even after a long intermission in glowing September sunlight, it was difficult to go from Shostakovich's grim vision to the healthy good cheer of Dvorak's "Dumky."

The dead whom Shostakovich celebrated were almost palpable. So powerful was the performance that, if you thought about it enough, you could just about see their ghosts doing a danse macabre on the stage.

Actually, it was Shostakovich's friend Ivan Sollertinsky, a fellow nay-sayer to the political demands, whom the composer memorialized in this 1944 work. Marked by eerie harmonics, ostinatos and pizzicatos, the three movements fairly scream their agonies at the listener. Intonation be damned: The players spared nothing in their embrace of the grief and anger, rendering them cathartic.

As crazed as the middle movement was, the finale -- with its keening opening melody giving way to a wildly defiant evocation of oppressed Judaism -- loosed the full furies on the house. Whew. Hard to believe there were really only three musicians producing these effects.

All the more, then, did the performance whet the appetite for Shostakovich's satirical opera "The Nose," coming Oct. 26 in the Met's HD series.

The South Mountain program presented three familiar musicians in a relatively rare combination. Wu Han and Finckel are longtime chamber music partners who have played the Mountain before as a duo. Setzer is a member of the Emerson String Quartet, which returns to the Mountain this Sunday.

Finckel was the Emerson's cellist for 34 years. He retired this year to devote more time to his varied chamber music activities, including co-directorship with Wu Han (his wife) of New York's Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.

With such player pedigrees, you'd expect outstanding performances, each vividly brought to life, and that's just what you got. The group capitalized on opportunities for jokes, surprises, mimicry, sentiment and broad-scaled vitality in Beethoven's youthful Trio, Opus 1, No. 2. The largo movement was songful and soulful, with a sense of mystery that suggested his later "Ghost" Trio. (Those ghosts again!)

Tonal luster and rhythmic flow marked Dvorak's "Dumky," but most of all it was a sense of spontaneity that made the well-worn music laugh and weep, dance and sing, and glory in sun and shadow. The andante from Mendelssohn's D minor Trio was the encore - not that such a generously proportioned and performed program really needed an encore.


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