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Music

Stellar Romantic Brahms Readings by Modern Masters Emanuel Ax, Leonidas Kavakos, and Yo-Yo Ma

Photo: Hilary Scott (Courtesy of Boston Symphony Orchestra)

Emanuel Ax, Leonidas Kavakos, and Yo-Yo Ma do Brahms justice by honoring his introverted and extroverted musical moments.

Brahms: The Piano Trios
Emanuel Ax, Leonidas Kavakos, Yo-Yo Ma

Sony Classical

15 Sept 2017

There is a mature complexity residing within the structural simplicity in the music of Johannes Brahms. The man was notoriously self-critical, known to endlessly edit and reconstruct his compositions in the name of musical beauty. He thought nothing of burning anything he considered subpar. From this, we can glean insight into a composer obsessed with perfection and precision: nothing is left to chance, and everything has a noted meaning or purpose. While perhaps it's not unfair to consider his writing process overwrought, we also must see this compulsion towards revision as a desire for clarity.

While his ideas about harmony and melody fit the Romantic zeitgeist of his time, Brahms tended to favor structures from the prior Classical period. His tendency to gaze towards the past doesn't mean his music is antiquated by any means Consider, instead, that his sensibility found purpose in these older structures, and how reviving them in a modern age would infuse them with new life. In collaborating for Brahms: The Piano Trios, pianist Emanuel Ax, violinist Leonidas Kavakos, and cellist Yo-Yo Ma unearth the rich dialogue and musical unification Brahms envisioned for the piano trio format.

The opening Trio No. 2 in C Major, Op. 87 is a study in reservation and exuberance. The opening "Allegro" is performed in an understated fashion, yet its musical intent is clear. The slinky, quasi-waltz melody is energetic enough that it doesn't require over exaggeration, and Kavakos and Ma convey a stately character with apropos charm and grace. The second movement "Andante con moto" is a set of variations on a sorrowful theme steeped in folk flavor. Once again the violin and cello beautifully interact by bending unison lines and trading motifs. Ax, all the while, maintains the pulse, urging things forward to keep the music from falling apart into a mournful mess.

The only critique may be the slight withholding of Ax in the overall mix. Pianists may traditionally yield to the soloist(s) in chamber music, but the instrument's structural role makes it indispensable to the texture, and you can feel its slight lacking presence on third movement "Scherzo: Presto." Nonetheless, the unity of Ax, Kavakos, and Ma as a trio enrich the movement's frantic runs and rich melodies. "Allegro giocoso" is a victorious and playful conclusion to the composition with its light, but no less substantial, character.

Brahms's compositional maturity is evident in his Trio No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 101. Ax, Kavakos, and Ma balance the contrasting severe, poetic, and whimsical moments with grace. The dramatic opening motif of first movement "Allegro energico" demands the listener's attention before melting away into flowing, sustained lines. The witty "Presto non assai" exhibits the trio's dynamic relationship, although a touch more lightness would have polished the movement towards perfection. Concluding movement "Allegro molto" is wonderfully interpreted with skillful levels of control and abandon precisely how Brahms intended.

The earliest work on the recording, the Trio No. 1 in B Major, Op. 8 reflects, curiously enough, both Brahm's earliest and latest musical sensibilities. The first version was, unsurprisingly, revised by the composer, edited and streamlined into the slightly shorter work that appears on this recording. The trio handles this final composition with the same care and consideration as the previous two, exaggerating the theatrical and caring for the subdued when appropriate. The "Scherzo: Allegro molto" and "Finale: Allegro" are the stand-out movements, blissfully reveling in the striking and the elegiac with equal consideration.

Tackling the entirety of the album–all three piano trios–in one setting is a herculean effort, one that would undoubtedly exhaust more than it would reward. Consider the recording a collection to be parsed through rather than withstood in one go. Ax, Kavakos, and Ma interpret Brahms's music with deep love and consideration for its variety of character and maturity.

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