The talent was top-shelf at Alice Tully Hall on Sunday evening, kicking off 2013 for the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center with a cello sonata by Brahms, and trios by Dvořák and Haydn. Emerson String Quartet violinist Philip Setzer joined co-artistic directors of the Society David Finckel on (cello) and Wu Han (piano). The concertgoers filled the hall to near-capacity, braving New York’s flu season for the chance to hear the trio perform the Dvořák trios that the group has recently recorded.

Philip Setzer © Lisa-Marie Mazzucco
Philip Setzer
© Lisa-Marie Mazzucco

Starting with Brahms’ Sonata no. 1 in E minor, the concert left ground with Finckel’s rich baritone sound filling the hall. While Wu Han amply supported Finckel in the first movement, in the second movement’s minuet she brought both nuance and vitality to the interplay between instruments. The tentative, almost improvisatory rubato chromatic turn, repeated throughout the middle section, was almost startlingly intimate, displaying the mastery and control both players had at their disposal. Throughout the sonata, both players displayed especial sensitivity to phrase shaping and hall resonance that bespoke a comfortable familiarity, and the hall cradled the exuberant interpretation of the third movement very well.

With the appearance of Setzer for the Trio no. 4 in E minor, “Dumky” came the opportunity to hear very different interpretations of Dvořák’s string writing. The suite of six short movements mixes Slavic folk ballads and dance tunes, and Finckel’s playing and stage persona emphasized the manic aspect of the sequence. Setzer, by contrast, was a sober hand whose long involvement with the precision and clarity of the Emerson Quartet came through clearly. The second movement had more moments of convergence, with the three musicians evoking an almost orchestral range of timbres and depth of phrasing. The third movement provided more of the same, with some slow moments of double-stopped violin and cello sounding almost as one instrument. The remainder of the pieces continued to highlight some of the differences of approach between Setzer and Finckel: the former kept a bit more bow out of his sound than Finckel, and Finckel continued to play with as much engagement and astonishment as if he were playing the piece for the very first time.

The final piece on the program was Dvořák’s Trio no. 3 in F minor, a four-movement work that dug deeper than either of the previous works and came out the better for it. Beginning with a dolefully attenuated Sturm und Drang, the first movement made a lovely setting for the violin’s clarity and masterful precision. The Scherzo gave Wu Han a refreshing chance to play out, with a Bohemian folk tune set in a half-time hemiola against the strings. Setzer also played with more guts this time around, to the point that he was retuning his instrument between every movement. Both the luxuriant depth and unfurling melodic lines of the third movement contributed to a perfect crystallization of the performers’ sublime affect after the breathless Scherzo. The finale, inspired by the Czech furiant dancing tune, seemed almost like gilding on the lily after the excellent second and third movements, but in no way was it anything to complain about.

In the final analysis, there was something slightly thin in the performance of the Dvořák Dumky trio that came down to a simple difference in tone and style between the string players. I must reiterate that this kind of difference was only audible due to the truly spectacular level of execution. Often this difficulty was submerged in flashes of virtuosity or emotive brilliance, but the overall effect was one of greatness just barely averted.

An encore performance brought the final Allegro from a Haydn Piano Trio in A major to the stage – a witty, flippant number that struck just the right tone for a finale to the night’s performance. And finally, Setzer’s playing sounded perfectly at home, matching the tone of the fluttering treble piano lines with grace and ease.