Ebullient Brahms Piano Trios with Yo-Yo Ma and Friends

By Truman C. Wang

Having lived with the Brahms Piano Trios recording of the Beaux Arts Trio for a good part of two decades, I was beginning to find these pieces stale and rather ponderous.  The Ax, Kavakos, Ma performance at the Disney Hall last night jolted me out of my Brahmsian slump and made me perk up with toe-tapping delight.

Chamber music groups are as numerous as there are stars in heaven.  Much rarer are groups made up of supernovas.  Surely, Emanuel Ax, Leonidas Kavakos and Yo-Yo Ma are superstars of their respective instruments and, in Yo-Yo Ma’s case, a humanitarian beloved the world over, equally at home at Carnegie Hall and on Sesame Street.  What’s even more astonishing, they made music together like a well-honed, silk-road smooth ensemble, with nary a hint of egos at play. 

How much did I love this new reading of Brahms Piano Trios?  Let me count the ways.  It’s completely fluid, spontaneous and very dynamic.  The Trio No. 1 in B major was full of suave and refined expression in the first movement, followed by a delicate, shadowy Scherzo that looks forward to Mahler’s Nachtmusik.  Yo-Yo Ma made the most of the third-movement solo with his trademark silken, soulful tones, while the brilliant piano part in the finale saw Emanuel Ax at his virtuoso best.   Trio No. 2 in C major (third movement) saw a jolly Ax scampering up and down the keyboard like Schubert’s ‘Trout’, with Ma and Kavakos providing a torrent of ebullient string sounds.  Another magical moment occurred in Trio No. 3 in C minor (second movement), where the cello and violin answered the piano in quiet pizzicato tones, seemingly able to finish each other’s thoughts like conjoined twins. 

The trio first played these works together at Tanglewood in 2015 and repeated their winning program in the 2017-18 U.S. tour.   If you missed the concerts, their 2017 studio recording for Sony Classical is a fine substitute, losing surprisingly little of the electrifying spontaneity of their live performance.

Truman C. Wang is Editor-in-Chief of Classical Voice, whose articles have appeared in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune, the Pasadena Star-News, other Southern California publications, as well as the Hawaiian Chinese Daily.