Pianist Wu Han and cellist David Finckel didn’t have enough to do with their packed schedules a few years ago, so they asked violinist Philip Setzer to form a trio. On Sunday afternoon, they returned to give their third appearance at Union College’s Memorial Chapel as part of the 41st International Festival of Chamber Music.
The capacity crowd was treated to marvelous performances of two of Dvorák’s four piano trios and a particularly personal account of Brahms’ first Cello Sonata in E minor. Because the three musicians are such longtime friends and colleagues, the interpretations had a comfortable feeling to them — as if they were conversations on familiar and favorite topics. And because the players are so terrifically skillful, the audience could relax — no ensemble issues would raise their heads.
Wu Han and Finckel began with the Brahms. Written in the 1860s when Brahms was in his 20s, the three movements are wonderfully lyrical with well-arched lines tinged with romantic sentiment. Harmonic shifts were subtle. Finckel played with a rich tone in unforced yet highly nuanced, musically sensitive phrases. The lines were sung with great tenderness and lift in the first two movements but were done with grittier, more forceful nuances in the fugal finale.
Wu Han provided subtle balances throughout. Sometimes she was exuberant, other times she was playfully delicate in her commentary. Their celebrated intimacy of connection was always apparent. As a side note, she used an iPod rather than sheet music, which eliminated the need for a page tuner.
Setzer then joined them for Dvorák’s Piano Trio No. 4 in E minor (“Dumky”) of 1891. While these Dumky, which is plural for Dumka, a type of Slavonic ballad, were dark and melancholy, Dvorák infused them with jubilant, fast music of great color. The moods shifted often and quickly. He presented a wealth of ideas, which he spiked with some clever differences, such as having only the violin play or just the strings or there would be a bit of plucking. The six movements were poignant or rollicking, spare or lush. The players created atmosphere with their passion and expertise.
Dvorák’s Piano Trio No. 3 in F minor was more formal with more development, a denser texture and greater drama. The players were fabulous throughout from the rumbling piano and soaring violin to the eloquent cello.
The crowd was so exuberant in its response that the trio gave an encore: the last movement to Haydn’s Trio in A Major, which Wu Han called a dessert. It was filled with laughter, lightness and speedy melodic exchanges.
The next concert is 3 p.m. Jan. 27 with pianist Jeremy Denk.