Yo-Yo Ma, Emanuel Ax, Leonidas Kavakos play Brahms at Symphony Hall.
It still happens.
The ernest voices outside the hall, hoping for someone’s extra ticket. The room: packed full, buzzing before, during and after with excitement.
And the performance: try as hard as you can to be sanguine about it, to treat it like another night of music, and still there are those moments when you think that this is like something you’ve never heard before.
Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax have done this together for many years—the Celebrity Series first hosted this duo (with violinist Young Uck Kim) in 1980. Almost forty years ago. Isaac Stern, Jaime Laredo and Itzhak Perlman have also sat in that violin chair over the years.
Now performing with Leonidas Kavakos, the prodigious Greek violinist and conductor, the trio took the Symphony Hall stage Wednesday evening to perform the three Brahms trios. The repertory choice had the substance and elegance sufficient for this assembly of musicians.
The threesome programmed them 2, 3, 1, although the first trio, written when Brahms was 20, was extensively revised later in his life. Sequence means nothing, anyway. All these years later, only the craft matters, except to musicologists.
The C major (no. 2) begins with an Allegro that veers mightily from close harmonies to deep counterpoint, mainly in the strings. The piano stays moderate, along for the ride. The Andante is everything the first movement was not: tender and delicate, the trio thoughtfully integrated.
The Scherzo takes both notions together: it opens with a triplet figure, doubled—choppy and brisk. But the trio section smooths itself out, long legato lines sounding like a separate movement.
The finale is symphonic Brahms: a huge form, hardly sounding gracioso as the marking asks, but magisterial instead. A complaint? Hardly: this is how they heard it, and performed it.
Kavakos plays with deep musicianship. His tone is not the sweet, transparent “heart of the pitch” tone that Shaham offers, but more the multifaceted, multi-edged sound of a Joshua Bell.
The C minor trio offers a bit of the same mixture: the first movement, broad and aggressive, gives way to a presto movement with muted strings that leaves all its gestures unadorned, easy to identify and relish in. The Andante begins with a schoolyard melody—at least it comes off that way, a first-position tune in the violin, quickly embraced, transformed by the piano, and then harmonized thoroughly.
The strengths of the partnership wove through after intermission, with the B major trio, written early and reworked late. The Allegro, with its anthemic opening. The Scherzo: triplets in the A section, that noble trio, and then the modulation—just one note a the cadence, in the strings, played as one chord in the piano, and we’re off to the Adagio.
And what a slow movement. Yo-Yo solos—even Kavakos looked over in admiration—and Ax followed, like old friends finishing each other’s sentences. Each phrase was worth close attention.
The encore surprised: Schubert, the slow movement from the B-flat trio. Not R. or C. Schumann, to pay homage to the main subject of the evening?
Why quibble. One of the longest encores in a while—they probably knew they’d have to do more than one otherwise—it was like a tableau vivant. I do believe Kavakos improvised a line in one of the repeats—it sounded unfamiliar, and Yo-Yo gave him a look of admiration and surprise.