It’s difficult to find criticism for a concert like this. Three venerable musicians who are familiar colleagues meet over three gorgeous pieces of music – what’s not to love? And a program of three clarinet trios is like a three-course meal of desserts. True, the execution may have sacrificed spontaneity for the smooth, glossy sound one expects from recordings, but a pitch-perfect performance is still an enjoyable one.

David Shifrin; David Finckel and Wu Han, © Christian Steiner
David Shifrin; David Finckel and Wu Han,
© Christian Steiner

The program presented three clarinet trios spanning more than a hundred years, with early Beethoven (Op. 11), middle Bruch (Op. 83), and late Brahms (Op. 114). The evening opened with one of the nine pieces Beethoven wrote to satisfy the Viennese rage for wind chamber music. The sonata is written in the standard classical style, but with Beethoven’s signature sudden shifts of key and texture, and a good bit of humor. Pianist Wu Han, cellist David Finckel, and clarinetist David Shifrin played with a tightly focused, brilliant sound, sharply characterizing the contrasts in the first movement. Finckel shone in the lovely low lines of the central Adagio, a brief reflection between the raucous outer movements. It lacked only what Beethoven might call innigkeit, as if the trio were still getting warmed up. In the last movement, a theme and variations on a popular tune, the performers seemed to play hide-and-seek as the theme meandered around the instruments. The unaccompanied cello and clarinet variation was especially striking. Audience members were heard whistling the melody during the pause.

Bruch is an attractive composer, if not as complicated as the great Bs on the program. His Eight Pieces for clarinet trio come across as songs without words, and are mostly in the minor mode. Wu, Finckel, and Shifrin played the second, third, sixth, and seventh pieces. The work’s general format relied on lyrical melodic lines with voices alternately accompanying each other, each entrance ushering in a contrasting emotion. In the third piece, a flute-like clarinet tried to cheer up a gloomy cello (the clarinet won). The seventh piece was the only one played that night in a major key, balancing the rest with humor and robust heroism. The group brought out smaller motives within Bruch’s long phrases, motives that later took on longer lives and different characters.

Brahms’ late works for clarinet were profoundly rooted in his awareness of his own mortality, and the music is full of nostalgia even at its most playful. A year after he had declared his retirement from composing, he broke his vow, after being impressed by the playing of clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld, writing two sonatas and a quintet for him in addition to the trio. Even with just three instruments, the trio’s overlapping motives give it the complexity and depth of a Brahms symphony. In the work’s urgent opening phrase for solo cello, the performers created a gorgeous sense of height and depth within the phrases. Wu Han played with a more burnished tone than she used for the Beethoven, and Shifrin and Finckel’s playing sparkled in Brahms’ running scale motifs. The slow second movement consists of a melody of interchanging small and large intervals, with one player stepping into the space that another creates. The third movement, a waltz, turns nostalgic before you know it, and is over far too soon. The final movement returns to the turbulent mood of the very opening, and rushes to the end in a hasty crash.

The group returned to the stage for Brahms’ Intermezzo, Op. 117 no. 1, originally for piano solo but arranged here for the trio. It is a lullaby, explained Wu Han: “and we hope you have sweet dreams tonight,” she said. The little gem of a piece is perfectly wonderful the way Brahms wrote it, but with its gracious melody in Shifrin’s hands, and lovely touches of strummed pizzicato from Finckel, it was even better.

***11