BRAHMS Three Piano Trios
Emanuel Ax and Yo-Yo Ma’s recording of Brahms’s Piano Quartets – winner of Gramophone’s 1991 Chamber Music Award – was made with the violinist Isaac Stern near the end of his long career. Here, Ax and Ma are joined by Leonidas Kavakos, who is very much in his prime. In their tonal blend, Kavakos and Ma are not as well matched as, say, the Capuçon or Tetzlaff siblings; Ma’s sound has become gruffer over the years, while Kavakos’s is as fine and silky as ever. Musically, however, they are very much on the same page. Their duet in the third movement of Op 101 is intensely intimate, making the listener feel like an eavesdropper on a highly private conversation, yet they also dig deeply when the music demands it, giving impressive symphonic heft to the opening Allegro of Op 87, for instance.
Indeed, these performances get straight to the heart of Brahms’s music, relishing its pull of opposites. The first movement of the B major Trio finds a near-ideal balance between lyrical fervour – indicated by the composer’s Allegro con brio marking – and reflective equivocation. Ax is a superb partner in this, as he characterises vividly yet with a refreshing lack of affectation. In the Scherzo of Op 8, his playing is deliciously delicate, à la Mendelssohn, while also suggesting something darker and emotionally weighty.
Nicholas Angelich and the Capuçon brothers make the Scherzo of Op 87 into a nocturnal, almost sinister tour de force on their excellent Erato recording; Ax, Kavakos and Ma take a gentler approach with all the parts elegantly dovetailed, but it does pale in comparison. Overall, however, this new recording is more satisfying. If forced to select a single movement to symbolise what makes these interpretations so special, it would be the Andante con moto of Op 87, not only for its richness of expressive detail – note, for example, the stinging rhythmic snap they give to the main melody – but for the way these musicians make this theme and variations embody so many things at once: ballade, romanze, capriccio and intermezzo.
So here’s hoping this first recording by the Ax-Kavakos-Ma Trio will not be the last.