Without a doubt, this was one of the best concerts I have been privileged to hear. The phrasing, dynamic control and musical expression were perfection, and other than a hint of sharpness in the upper register only twice in the entire evening, the intonation was also extraordinary. According to the program notes, “violinist Philip Setzer, cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han make up one of the world’s finest piano trios. Finckel spent more than thirty years with the famed Emerson String Quartet, Setzer is a founding member of the Emerson, and Han has an outstanding career as an orchestral soloist and chamber player.” The trio played three of Beethoven’s six trios for violin, cello and piano and will return to Brendle Hall (on the Wake Forest Campus) to play the other three Thursday night, February 18 at 7:30 pm.

When Beethoven moved from his birthplace Bonn to Vienna to study with the famous Franz Josef Haydn, it was also to leave the provincial capital for the imperial capital, with all its implied magnificence and reputation. When, in 1785, he chose to publish three piano trios as his Opus 1, he was daring the musical world to compare him to his mentor, who had composed over 40 of the same form. Beethoven had already acquired the reputation in Vienna as a daring piano virtuoso known for his skills at musical improvisation; the difficulty of the piano writing in the three piano trios, Opus 1, solidified his reputation, and led Haydn, who was present at the first performance, to suggest that they were too difficult (particularly the third, Op. 1, No.3) for the Viennese public. Speaking at intermission, Han impishly suggested that these first three published works were designed to show off the pianist, originally Beethoven himself.

On stage, this trio sat with the violinist enthroned to the left, cellist to the right with his cello facing directly into the hall, but his music stand nearer the violinist in such a way that he was always looking at his music and the violinist at the same time. The piano was upstage and the pianist constantly looked at both the violinist and the cellist. The interchange of looks was fascinating with the cello and piano constantly monitoring the violinist and each other. All three musicians have an impossibly gorgeous sound and Han a marvelous delicate “touch” and sparkling staccato at the piano. Finckel also sparkles and seemed to impart wit and musical meaning through his eyebrows.

The musicians played the first and third trios of the Opus 1 before intermission and concluded with the Opus 70, No. 1, “Ghost” after intermission. The high point of the evening may well have been the slow movement of the Ghost trio, with its long slow perfectly tuned octaves in the cello and violin contrasted with the anguished and active piano part. Superbly foreboding pianissimi invoked a sense of timelessness – nothing was rushed. “Pregnant pauses” and held notes delivered gems of musical deliberation.

In a pre-concert lecture, Prof. David Levy, Ph.D. of the Wake Forest Dept. of Music presented vignettes from Beethoven’s life surrounding the composition of the three works heard. Unfortunately, the sound system malfunctioned but his comments were of interest to the large crowd.

As mentioned, this concert continues Thursday, February 18 at 7:30 in Brendle Recital Hall at Wake Forest University with pre-concert commentaries by David Levy, Ph. D. at 6:40 in the room across the lobby from the entrance to Brendle. On Thursday the trio will play Opus 1, No. 2, Opus 70, No. 2 and end with the Opus 97, “Archduke,” the most famous of the six trios.

NB  – (Interested readers may wish to compare the String Trio, Opus 1, No. 3 with Beethoven’s reworking of the piece into the String Quintet (with two violas), Op. 104, without piano and published 24 years after the original.)