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Review: Ax, Kavakos and Ma Achieve Greatness In Brahms Trios at Carnegie Hall

Brahms Trios

By Brian Taylor, Contributing Writer, February 26, 2018

Cellist Yo-Yo Ma and pianist Emanuel Ax, longtime chamber music partners, have been joined by violinist Leonidas Kavakos in a brilliant recent recording of the three Johannes Brahms piano trios on Sony Classical, and are now touring the U.S. performing them. On Thursday evening, Carnegie Hall transformed into an intimate salon, with a portion of the audience seated on the stage, around the piano. In this intriguing setting, the three musicians filled the hall with these expansive performances of Brahms Trios and frankly, masterpieces.

Ma is a superstar in the classical music world, with an outsized charisma onstage, but here he gracefully steps out of the spotlight and demonstrates that he is a happy collaborator. He is complemented perfectly by Kavakos’s quiet power. Kavakos has a satisfying, burnished tone, with exceptional control of the bow. Buttressed by Ax’s sure pianism, they coalesce and conspire in subtle ways.

The Trio No. 2 in C Major, Op. 87, begins with the violin and cello playing a grand statement in octaves, and immediately Kavakos and Ma are in communication, their timbres melting together as one. The second movement, a set of minor-keyed variations on a wistful folk-like tune in Brahms’s “Hungarian” mode, also begins with the strings in octaves. The piano follows on the off-beats, and indeed, throughout much of the piece, the piano plays counter to the unified strings, frequently syncopating and emphasizing duple against triple rhythms. When Ma plays a long melodic phrase handed off to Kavakos, they match spirit, tone, and dynamic level with a keenness to detail. In the mysterious “mezzo voce” theme of the last movement, again scored by Brahms for the two strings together in octaves, they achieve a unified color and energy.

Meanwhile, Ax, ever supportive at the piano, dispatches the intricate piano parts with deceptive ease. He almost disappears into the music. I wouldn’t have minded more personality in his playing, but his refinement is undeniable. In the first movement of the Trio No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 101 (from 1886), a lean, angular work, Ax softens the edges of the tempestuous piano part. In the divine second theme of this first movement, when again, Kavakos and Ma play an indelible melody in unison, Ax makes the sparse accompaniment more creamy than some pianists might.

Kavakos and Ma have a playful rapport that comes to the fore in the restless second movement. They effortlessly toss between them delightful pizzicato arpeggios that burble from the cello to the violin, with Ax finding just the right voicing and dynamic to not overpower. In a jocular dialogue of questions and answers between the violin and cello, they seem amused by each other’s ideas, and match each other wit for wit.

They round out the program with the first, but last, Trio No. 1 in B major, Op.8, last because it was revised rather substantially in 1889: a wise, aged Brahms grappling with his youthful self. Ma opens up his heart in the luscious opening theme, closing his eyes and listening for meaning in every note. Kavakos matches Ma in intensity, with long phrases that soar through their finishes. Their intonation is so perfect one forgets how difficult it is for two solo string instruments — no buttons, no knobs — to play together so ear-pleasingly.

Their ensemble reaches its zenith in the Scherzo, which begins devilishly, but in the lyrical middle section, the three virtuosos have discovered music that expresses the very essence of joy and redemption. Eliding the Adagio with its surrounding movements, Kavakos and Ma duet with compressed expressiveness, alternating with Ax’s silky, searching chords, they seem to suspend time. The piece’s debt to Beethoven does not seem lost on the trio. Their pacing and attention to the piece’s architecture, and their collective technical prowess in service of the spirit of Brahms makes for a transcendent evening of music that rewards again and again.

They played an encore of the second movement of Schubert’s Trio No. 1 in B-flat with more sweep than it is often played, perhaps emphasizing the tempo marking of “Andante un poco mosso.” I hope they continue their collaboration and give us more insight into the piano trio repertoire. This is not mere stunt casting, but a real chamber music ensemble with something to say, and the ability to deliver second to none.


Emanuel Ax, piano, Leonidas Kavakos, violin, and Yo-Yo Ma, cello, in concert at Carnegie Hall on February 22, 2018.

BRAHMS Piano Trio No. 2 in C Major

BRAHMS Piano Trio No. 3 in C Minor

BRAHMS Piano Trio No. 1 in B Major


SCHUBERT Andante un poco mosso from Piano Trio No. 1 in B-flat Major, D. 898

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Cover: (l. to r.) Leonidas Kavakos (violin), Emmanuel Ax (piano) and Yo-Yo Ma (cello) at Carnegie Hall; photo: Jennifer Taylor.


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