in: Reviews

February 24, 2018

Ax, Kavakos, Ma: The Team of Dreams


Superstars have often teamed up in hopes that the resulting ensemble would exceed the sum of its parts. Think of Alfred Cortot, Jacques Thibaud, and Pablo Casals; Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, and Ginger Baker; or the post-1988 U.S. men’s Olympic basketball team. In some cases, the whole was much less than the sum of its parts, while in others, group chemistry created something special. Last night, a capacity crowd filled Symphony Hall for another supergroup, courtesy of the Celebrity Series of Boston. Offering the three piano trios of Johannes Brahms, pianist Emanuel Ax, violinist Leonidas Kavakos, and cellist Yo-Yo Ma became the team that dreams are made of.

Ax and Ma have a musical partnership that spans decades, with a brace of fine recordings showcasing their world-class soloist skills and commitment to sensitive, thoughtful collaboration. The two have played and recorded trios with clarinetist Richard Stoltzman and violinists Isaac Stern, Young Uck Kim, Pamela Frank, and Itzhak Perlman. None of these groups lasted beyond its first album (unless you count the quartet recordings with Stern and violist Jaime Laredo).

The newcomer Kavakos boasts prodigious technique, wide ranging curiosity, experience in solo music, chamber music, and even conducting chops. An interview HERE illustrates the great personal chemistry.

This trio’s concert from Tanglewood in August 2014 (reviewed HERE) featured Brahms’s Violin Sonata #1, Cello Sonata #2, and Piano Trio #1, with the slow movement of Piano Trio #2 as an encore. They have embraced all three of the Brahms trios and recorded them as well, and they performed them in order of publication, beginning with the Piano Trio #2 in C Major, Op. 87 (1882). The first movement Allegro moderato showed many of the group’s virtues; Kavakos and Ma executed Brahms’s frequent octave doublings of violin and cello lines in lockstep. Ax, Kavakos, and Ma constantly leaned in to one another, watching each other like hawks, grinning at the how another echoed his line, and showed a wide dynamic range. Ax rendered Brahms’s notoriously thick-textured piano parts with beautiful clarity, cunning shape and direction, and meticulous attention to detail, without swamping out his string partners. Ma did his customary dipping and swaying, but kept a close eye on Kavakos and Ax. The string players stroked with full-throated, big-boned luscious sound when moments called for it, while readily engaging in rapid-fire switches from soloist to collaborator. Kavakos and Ma matched tone and vibrato in homophonic stretches, making for eerily beautiful octave and unison agreement. They made sure that each movement had a single biggest, loudest moment (usually the unison ending), and they excelled at slow-burn builds of tension and momentum as the music moved from piano to forte. They skipped all of the first movement exposition repeats, but gave each sonata allegro a strong narrative arc, so that each first movement earned appreciative applause.

Brahms used theme-and-variations formats for the slow movements of the trios. The group collectively shaped so perfectly, that it was easy to tell where one variation ended and the next began. They emphasized the striking emotional contrasts of the Scherzo-Trio pairings, and the final movements had an energy and exuberance that made for roundly satisfying endings. The threesome showed these traits in varying ways in Trio #2, in the much more spare and compact Piano Trio #3 in C Minor, Op. 101 (published in 1886), and in the spacious, lyrical Piano Trio #1 in B Major, Op. 8 (the first completed in 1854), but they chose Brahms’s detailed revision of 1889, which substantially shortened the first movement).

The trio at Symphony Hall (Robert Torres photo)

Some of my favorite moments from the evening included the gorgeous hushed string chords in the recapitulation of Piano Trio #2’s Andante con moto, hushed but with a steely clear presence. There was the gradual decrescendo at the end of the 2nd Trio’s Scherzo, ending with a barely audible pizzicato chord with a deft enough comic timing to draw giggles from the audience. And in that trio’s Finale at the very top and bottom of the piano register, areas that can often sound muddy, Ax cleanly articulated without pulling focus from the strings. The group acknowledged applause after Piano Trio #2, but without stepping offstage, began Piano Trio #3, shaping the swooping octave-doubled string lines to make it sound like a continuation of the musical conversation. In the third Trio’s second movement Presto non assai, there was a fast-paced exchange of pizzicato figures between Ma and Kavakos where the lines continued through the handoffs so seamlessly that if your eyes were closed, you’d hear a single virtuoso at breakneck speed, rather than two individuals trading licks. The fourth movement’s exuberant, syncopated descending scales brought the first half of the concert to an end with a breathtaking flourish.

The longer lines and more extended solo moments of the Piano Trio #1 gave each soloist moments to shine. Ma inflected the opening cello line of the first movement with the aching longing you would expect. Ax voiced the chorale that opens the third movement Adagio with nobility. And the seething restlessness in the Finale built to a stunning b-minor close.

In response to a vigorous standing ovation, the group encored with the Andante un poco mosso second movement from Schubert’s Piano Trio #1 in B-flat Major, D.898. This Schubert outdid the earlier Brahms, as Ma rendered the opening, soaring cello melody in stunning fashion, and Kavakos matched perfectly. The group prepared each of Schubert’s unorthodox modulations beautifully, and repeated figures came with playful extra embellishments. The threesome allowed themselves a bit more freedom and flexibility of tempo, within that same consistent understanding of line and shape; several times Kavakos repeated the same note near the start of the recapitulation, each time differently, giving a one-note line a clear direction and purpose. In sum, we were treated to an evening of stunning, technically enviable playing.

Ax, Kavakos, and Ma continue touring together until March 4th, offering the three Brahms Trios in some cities and Brahms’s Piano Trio #1 with all of Schubert’s Piano Trio #1 in others. I would imagine that such celebrated, in-demand masters’ schedules are so busy that future repetitions of this group will occur with the frequency of new seasons of Sherlock (and for much the same reason). But the fact that they assembled in 2014 and returned with an expanded program is heartening. And I, for one, certainly wouldn’t mind if a disc of the two Schubert Trios is the next offering from this chamber music Dream Team.

James C.S. Liu is a physician by day and a baritone and music enthusiast by night. He lives with his wife and daughters in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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