IN: Reviews

A Moving Time Was Had by All


Covid abates in our social lives even as bloody European war rages on our media. Superstars Emanuel Ax, piano, Leonidas Kavakos, violin, and Yo-Yo Ma, cello, responded to these new, intensely shared states of relief and grief by offering up a Beethoven lovefest at Symphony Hall Wednesday evening in a Celebrity Series of Boston offering. The place was very nearly full, which I believe I’ve never seen for chamber forces, and much-needed good vibrations abounded, for performances of a Pastoral Symphony transcription and two piano trios, opera 11 and 70 no. 1. The concert opened with the threesome serving the Ukraine national anthem, tears in waiting onstage and on the floor.

Kavakos, Ax, and Ma (Robert Torres photo)

The crowd applauded after each movement, as was the custom long ago, and rose after every piece. It was that kind of event. It is churlish to critique in long detail, but some general notes might prove engaging for those happy many who were there. On paper it would seem that Kavakos’ lean tones, sometimes tending to the thin and even astringent, might not blend with Ma’s clean and precise and ever musical heartfelt bounce. (Has this cellist ever played a suboptimal note in his professional life?) But no, their ensemble was by turns delicate and passionate. Ax lay back most of the time, which was odd musically, because Beethoven’s piano writing is rich and complicated and these compositions everywhere democratic, and also nonmusically, as the cellist and the pianist recently gave an arch, joky interview one of whose oddities involved how Ax was the driver of this power trio initiative and group dynamic.

Is any music more stirring than Beethoven in a good mood? The Pastoral wins listeners no matter what is done to it, although this evening its extreme geniality at the start got treated too genially: those endlessly repeated bucolic intervals have more, well, not exactly harmonic tension, not edge, but more magic than the supertrio decided to convey. The congenial music did come into its grateful power presently, as the composer summons water, birdies, rockin’ party, fierce weather, and relieved song, and the performance became a marvel. (Pianist Shai Wosner did the transcription.)

Opus 11 initially sounded somewhat underrehearsed, especially Ax, and low in showing off the 27-year-old composer’s clever accomplishments following study with Salieri and Haydn. Yet again, by the last movement’s lively pop song variations, with spry, exposed lines, the trio’s formerly rounded playing became expert and pointed, in the highest of high spirits.

Composed 11 years later, the Ghost Trio suffered a sloppy opening too, and I realized that a lot of the concert had been feeling like impassioned sightreading. The strings played principal and rocked out (sometimes leaving small messes) and again and again let the pianist simply catch up. But once more the effort came together. The namesake second movement, which Schubert a few years later must have absorbed and understood as deeply as a younger composer can, cohered perfectly as it unfolded its spectral drama. The Presto finale may have wanted bite and that last gear of drive, but even so it caused one to look forward to the CD.

As so often happens, the encore, the third movement of  the next Opus 70 piano trio, could not have been improved upon in any respect, and at its conclusion beaming happiness reigned across the hall, and beyond.

David Moran has been an occasional Boston-area music critic for 50 years, with special interest in the keyboard.


3 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. I thought Ax was in fine form, and very much at the center of things. The piano plays a large role in Beethoven’s piano trios, but that does not make it a forward role. The string voices were perhaps more talkative, but the piano was always there in the most essential moments, providing detail and outline, reducing the loquacious string-talk into a more pure essence.

    The audience, despite its worst efforts, did not quite manage to applaud after every movement, because the fourth and fifth movements of the symphony were taken attacca, as usual. I’m sure some were aggrieved at the missed opportunity. They did, as you say, stand after every piece. In my opinion, there should be about three standing ovations a year in Symphony Hall, so I found three in one night to be a bit much. I would, though, have awarded this performance one of my allotted three. It was a good night of music. As I left I myself was beaming forth happiness.

    Comment by SamW — March 11, 2022 at 5:51 pm

  2. Yeah, I was wondering whether close floor seating accounted for my hearing little piano detail or outline, given my general prejudice against Ax’s cushy approach, which makes me suspect myself. I decided the blurry, scrambling, even occasionally lagging impression was not an acoustical matter, ultimately. But I could be mistaken — Jeffrey Gantz’s Globe writeup noted none such.
    A warm and needed event regardless.

    Comment by David R Moran — March 12, 2022 at 2:14 am

  3. Fun fact: I noticed on the Carnegie Hall website that the Kavakos-Ax-Ma trio is playing there (maybe tonight?). The top ticket price for the BSO at Carnegie on Tuesday is $150, while for the trio it’s $295.

    Comment by Vance Koven — March 12, 2022 at 5:32 pm

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