Concert Review: The Super Trio Celebrates Brahms

The members of this trio seem to have preternatural access to each other’s musical thoughts.

Yo-Yo Ma, Leonidas Kavakos, and Emanuel Ax at Symphony Hall. Photo: Robert Torres.

By Susan Miron

Yo-Yo Ma’s website lists him as #CulturalCitizen, #Cellist, the Founder & Artistic Director @SilkRoadProject, and Creative Consultant @ChicagoSymphony. But those who have followed him and his various careers for decades know him as an amazingly charismatic presence in person and on the stage. His personal and musical magnetism has taken him in at least a dozen directions, but hearing him in person, in whatever format, remains a serious thrill. To my mind, no classical musician is more beloved. Each time I attend one of his concerts, which is usually yearly, I am stunned to still be so emotionally affected by his playing. He makes a palpable connection with the audience the moment he walks on stage.

As he did Thursday night in a sold-out Symphony Hall concert presented by Celebrity Series of Boston. Ma, with his longtime colleague pianist Emanuel Ax, and violinist Leonidas Kavakos, strode out on stage with electrifying smiles. They are more than what Carnegie Hall’s PR  proclaims “a super trio”; they are close friends who love performing together, and who love Brahms. Their excellent recording (reviewed in The Arts Fuse) of these three Brahms sonatas was released last fall. Of course, Kavados, Ma, and Ax are hardly the first ones to make a Brahms Trio recording. Every serious piano trio and, yes, pick-up groups of celebrities sold as “super trios,” has recorded them. One of the most celebrated early recordings of the three Brahms piano trios was made in the 1940s by the “million-dollar trio” of violinist Jascha Heifetz, pianist Artur Rubinstein, and cellist Emanuel Feuermann. Another, featuring violinist Josef Suk, pianist Julius Katchen, and cellist Janos Starker was recently reissued — it is many people’s all-time favorite. (That disc can be heard on You Tube. Also on You Tube is a 1983 concert recording of violinist Young Uck Kim joined by the youthful Ma and Ax playing Brahms Trio in B Flat).

In this first stop of a two-week U.S. tour, the ensemble’s boundless energy and enthusiasm were palpable. The trio, in interviews, have remarked that it helps to play with very good friends. They seem to have preternatural access to each other’s musical thoughts.

Ma and Ax made their Celebrity Series of Boston debut in 1980. Ax has been a perennial presence at Tanglewood and, in Boston, a frequent guest of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Celebrity Series (over 30 times). Still, I think Ax is a somewhat under-appreciated performer. Could it be because he makes everything seem so easy? Or is it that his modesty and amiability mask his formidable intelligence? He is a superb chamber musician, and in these trios his musical prowess was on full impressive display. Brahms piano writing offers treacherous challenges. Ax was splendid throughout the evening; he was a sensitive collaborator, adapting to every mood shift in the music, playing his solos exquisitely.

Kavakos, a highly lauded (and three-time big competition winning) violinist and conductor, knows his way around Brahms and fits into this ensemble marvelously. Among the evening’s highlights were the many gorgeous duo moments between violin and cello. Their intonation was impeccable, their intertwined sound mesmerizing. (Note: Kavados has recorded the 3 Brahms violin sonatas with Yuja Wang.)

The three trios, of which the B Major is undoubtedly the most popular, trace Brahms’ development from a youthful disciple of Robert Schumann to a fully developed master. He always wrote astonishing beautiful melodies, but an autumnal nostalgia seeps in over time. Brahms (1833-97) devoted much of the 1880s to his three Piano Trios, having decided, as he told a friend, that there was “no further point in attempting an opera or a marriage.”

The Trio No. 2 in C Major, Opus 87 (1880-82) and No. 3 C minor (1886) are among Brahms’s less familiar chamber works. He originally wrote No 1 in B Major as a young man, overhauling the piece (in 1889) three decades later. Before this, Brahms had only published songs and large piano works. Perhaps inspired by his stimulating association with composer Robert Schumann (they met in 1853) and his pianist wife Clara, Brahms now turned to chamber music, one of Robert’s strengths (Robert and Clara had written piano trios of their own). By January 1854, Brahms had completed an expansive, four-movement piano trio in B major. We know that he had already discarded a large number of attempts at chamber works and other compositions. The new trio was the first piece of chamber music that satisfied him enough to publish; it was issued later that year as Op. 8.

The friends opened with Trio No 2 in C Major, Opus 87 (1880-1882) and intensity reigned. Brahms’s treatment of the violin and cello playing together, without piano, foreshadows the texture and the sonorities of his Double Concerto. Throughout, the cello and violin were exceedingly well-matched. The Trio No. 3 followed, elegantly performed, movingly played on each instrument.

After intermission, the three took on the much-loved Piano Trio in B Major in its 1889 revision. This is a piece I have loved for 50 years, and this performance was among the best I’ve heard. Like the two previous trios, it had everything — superb instrumental playing, unity of vision, and rhapsodic cello playing that endears Ma to his legions of hardcore fans.

My feeling is that many will long remember this evening. Unsurprisingly, the audience went wild; the friends obliged by playing, for an encore, the Andante un poco Mosso (second movement) of Schubert’s Piano Trio in B Flat,D. 898. What will stick in my mind about this beautiful evening are some of the odd, savory details: Ma’s incredibly expressive pizzicati, and the three friends hugging and hugging (within sight) off-stage at the end of the performance.

Susan Miron, a harpist, has been a book reviewer for over 20 years for a large variety of literary publications and newspapers. Her fields of expertise were East and Central European, Irish, and Israeli literature. Susan covers classical music for The Arts Fuse and The Boston Musical Intelligencer.

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