This is one resilient residency. Last winter, the Schubert Club announced that chamber music's first couple, cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han, would be artists-in-residence this season. It seemed that COVID-19 would scotch those plans, but Finckel and Han kept their commitment to perform a pair of concerts Thursday and Friday.
OK, they weren't at St. Paul's Ordway Concert Hall, but recorded at their New York studio. Nevertheless, Finckel and Han delivered, and their remaining concerts full of music by Franz Schubert are now slated June 3-10 at the State Fairgrounds' Schilling Amphitheater.
If all goes well, not one piece of Schubert will be excised from the original plan. That is our good fortune, based upon Thursday and Friday's performances, available for free on-demand at Schubert.org.
"Schubert Revealed" is what Finckel and Wu Han have dubbed their residency, and the performances indeed felt like a disarmingly intimate audience with the composer. The two were able to quarantine and get tested with some outstanding string players, then play maskless.
An exceptionally well-played Piano Trio No. 2 on Thursday was followed Friday night (available here starting at 7:30 p.m.) by a bracing interpretation of the composer's final passionate musical utterance, his String Quintet in C. If you wish to experience Schubert the smiling master of melody, check out the Piano Trio and its darting, dancing exchanges between violin, cello and piano. If you want to engage with the purveyor of powerfully conflicted layers of notes and emotions, hop on the String Quintet and hold on tight.
Finckel and Wu Han are widely regarded as America's foremost champions of chamber music. The winners of Musical America's "Artist of the Year" award in 2012, they're co-leaders of New York's esteemed Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center while heading up a few festivals and their own record label, too. The quality of the company they keep was clear from these two concerts.
Joining them for the Piano Trio was violinist Benjamin Beilman, last seen in town soloing with the Minnesota Orchestra. The three seemed supremely simpatico, executing hairpin turns from forceful unisons to delicate lines interwoven like a spider's web. Their chemistry came through strongly in a finale full of mischievously conspiratorial whispers and bold, Beethoven-esque drama.
Schubert was a masterful composer in several forms — songs, symphonies, solo piano works — but it was a chamber work that he chose to furiously finish on his deathbed. His String Quintet is filled with surges of intensity and release, and it was given a gripping performance by Finckel, violinists Beilman and Arnaud Sussmann, violist Matthew Lipman and cellist Nicholas Canellakis.
It's lovely when Finckel and Canellakis harmonize on melodic duets and Sussmann soars above the ensemble with an urgent sense of striving. But Schubert never lets you get too comfortable, the players periodically converging on tones that are emphatically aggressive. The Quintet's Presto movement captured what's magical about chamber music — an unmitigated adrenaline rush in these players' hands, their eyes and expressions displaying an extra level of communication.
While the audio engineering was excellent on both concerts, I preferred the camera work on the Piano Trio, especially when it cut to Wu Han's dancing fingers on the keys. The String Quintet overemphasized Sussmann at the expense of others, leaving me wishing for more of that arresting interaction.
Rob Hubbard is a freelance classical music critic. • firstname.lastname@example.org
David Finckel, Wu Han and friends
What: Two concerts of works by Franz Schubert.
Where: Streaming at schubertclub.org through April 5.