Under a starry firmament at Tanglewood Thursday, a capacity crowd gathered within and without Seiji Ozawa Hall to witness a constellation of four musical stars. Leonidas Kavakos, Yo-Yo Ma, Emanuel Ax, and Johannes Brahms provided yet another reason to venerate the 20-year-old architectural tribute to Ozawa.
The multisensory experience that is Tanglewood featured, on this late summer night, crisp breezes tinged with a hint of citronella wafting through the glowing confines of Ozawa Hall. After a rather turbulent afternoon, conditions settled down on cue and a waxing supermoon rose majestically over the hills. To this rich natural tableau was added the dulcet tones of Brahms’s Violin Sonata No. 1 in G Major, Opus 78. Composed in the summers of 1878 and 1879, this serene work is noted for both its lyricism and its subtlety. This evening’s interpretation, realized by violinist Leonidas Kavakos and pianist Emanuel Ax, was subtle almost to a fault. Though marked vivace ma non troppo (lively, but not too lively) the first movement sounded, at least to this pair of ears, to be unusually muted and subdued, with a somewhat conservative tempo. Kavakos’s straight-legged, contained stage presence came across as introspective and perhaps a bit remote. This inward focus well-suited the hushed, yearning, almost reverential second movement adagio, but seemed less appropriate in the more energetic outer movements. Following the violinist’s lead, pianist Ax spun a quiet, pearly-toned accompaniment. Both played with purity and precision. The restrained final notes precipitated an appreciative but relatively inhibited audience response.
And then Yo-Yo burst upon the scene! Cool moonlight was eclipsed by brilliant sunshine, and a warm ovation rained down upon the stage. Brahms’s Cello Sonata No. 2 in F Major was off and running, in all its churning, roiling, expressive glory. Penned some two decades after his first cello sonata, this passionate piece is the antithesis of its brooding predecessor; the middle-aged composer exhibited all the musical exuberance of youth. Offering a type of musical prestidigitation, Ma, though seemingly in another realm, with beatific countenance and nearly-closed eyes, still managed immediately and continuously to connect with seemingly every concertgoer. Collaborators for over 40 years, Ma and Ax appeared hyperconnected to one another as well, crafting delicate musical caresses in the second movement adagio affettuoso and synchronized, gossamer tones in the final allegro. Ever the consummate accompanist, Ax maintained appropriate dynamic balance and color throughout, handling the notoriously virtuosic penultimate movement with aplomb. The final notes had yet to completely die away before the audience was on its feet.
All three musicians joined forces for the evening’s final selection, Piano Trio No. 1 in B Major, Opus 8, originally written by Brahms as a precocious youth of 21 but extensively revised some 35 years later. Somewhat surprisingly, Brahms actually had no qualms about keeping both versions in circulation, making for some intriguing comparisons, the most significant of which is that the same thematic material was extensively reworked and distilled by the more experienced composer into a rendition that’s approximately two-thirds the length of its earlier incarnation. Tonight’s performers opted for the more expeditious, edited version. This is Brahms at his most passionate, his most emotional; not surprising, considering that the original was written shortly after the composer’s friend and mentor, Robert Schumann, had attempted suicide. All three performers demonstrated technical wizardry and unabashed fervor. Emanuel Ax, a steady presence throughout the evening with just the vanishingly rare errant note, contributed opalescent passages and rounded, elegantly crafted phrases; Yo-Yo Ma nearly popped out of his shoes at times, breathing life into ‘Petunia,’ his performance instrument; Leonidas Kavakos responded in kind with heightened expressivity. In all candor, I was actually moved to doff my reviewer’s cap, sit back, and simply let the exquisite music wash over me. The natural glow of Ozawa Hall’s teak latticework; the fragrant breezes; the elegant adagio, aural equivalent of a crystal clear, still pond; the finale, lush as the Berkshire Hills; the utter silence between notes courtesy of my rapt fellow concertgoers; together these shaped an unparalleled Tanglewood experience. Following the protracted Standing Ovation No. 2, we were treated to an enticing encore: the soft textures and musical inventiveness of the slow movement of Brahms’s Piano Trio No. 2 in C Major, Opus 87. Sublime.