Ma, Ax, Kavakos show close rapport in Brahms feast for Celebrity Series

February 22, 2018 at 12:00 pm

By Jonathan Blumhofer

Leonidas Kavakos, Emanuel Ax and Yo-Yo Ma performed Brahms'  complete piano trios Wednesday night at Symphony Hall. Photo: Robert Torres

Leonidas Kavakos, Emanuel Ax and Yo-Yo Ma performed Brahms’ complete piano trios Wednesday night at Symphony Hall. Photo: Robert Torres

Wednesday night brought violinist Leonidas Kavakos, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and pianist Emanuel Ax to Symphony Hall for the first concert in a month-long U.S. tour built mostly around the piano trios of Johannes Brahms. Last night’s program found the ensemble in particularly fine form.

Ma and Ax have been playing together for years – they made their Celebrity Series debuts together in 1980 – and, with them, you basically know what you’re going to get: impeccable technique, plush tone, uniform articulations, and deep musical insights.

Kavakos fits right in. Like both of his colleagues, he’s a charismatic virtuoso but also an amiable collaborator, a violinist who, often enough, seems content to fit in with his partners rather than try and dominate them.

In these pieces, which the trio recorded for Sony Classical last year, that approach works best: there’s a remarkable tonal blend between the three and overall the players demonstrate an admirable musical rapport. They’ve got a natural grasp of the music’s ebb and flow and their passionate, fiery playing on Wednesday night left little to be desired.

Each Brahms trio showcased the musicians in a different light.

The night’s first offering, the Trio No. 2 in C-major (1880), was weighty and symphonic. From the robust, heroic opening of its first movement to the stirring, modal refrain of the last, this was a warmly played, often highly intense reading (so fervid, in fact, that Ma’s mute went flying across the stage at one point in the first movement).

It was also psychologically astute, especially in the middle movements. The second’s variations were carefully paced, Kavakos and Ma perfectly matching their articulations of the bleak, recurring theme. The droll scherzo was a gossamer study in contrasts: light and shade, heat and cold.

There was plenty of expressive fire in evidence in the ensemble’s interpretation of the Trio No. 3 in C minor (1886) which came next. Kavakos, Ma, and Ax emphasized the first movement’s aching dissonances and the strings dispatched their pizzicato statements during the Scherzo’s trio with panache. The dovetailing themes in the sumptuous third movement were tenderly linked while the finale drove with terrific force. Despite the score’s occasional density and often intense chromaticism, Wednesday’s reading was conspicuous for its clean lines and tight rhythms.

After intermission came the Trio No. 1 in B major, in the 1889 revision.

This was the night’s most introspective performance. Its first movement was often warm and lyrical, though punctuated by aggressive exchanges between Ax and the string players. The pianist brought unblemished clarity and elegance to the little filigrees at the end of the second movement as well as sonorous weight to his opening statements in the gorgeous third.

Here too, Kavakos and Ma wove a delicate tapestry with their melodic lines. Save for the jangle of an audience member’s cell phone shattering the delicately crafted mood just before the last chord sounded, Wednesday’s account of this movement was hypnotic. The turbulent finale sounded–perhaps partly in response to that phone–particularly tumultuous.

The performance was rewarded with a lusty ovation after which Kavakos, Ma, and Ax returned for an encore of the Andante from Schubert’s Piano Trio no. 1 in B flat major. After the rigorous complexity of the Brahms, here the group simply sat back and unwound with a beautiful, wordless song. Theirs was a soulful account, anchored by Ax’s meltingly warm keyboard playing and sung by Ma’s glowing cello and Kavakos’ soaring fiddle.

The next classical event sponsored by the Celebrity Series will feature pianists Daniil Trifonov and Sergey Babayan in music by Schumann, Pärt, Mozart, and Rachmaninoff. 8 p.m. March 5 at Jordan Hall.; 617-482-6661.

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