The Piano Trios
Emanuel Ax p, Leonidas Kavakos v, Yo-Yo Ma vc
Sony Classical 88985407292 (2CD)
Brahms left such a splendidly rich corpus of chamber music it’s little wonder that eminent soloists have taken time out of their busy careers to team up with colleagues to perform it. The three piano trios with their heart-stirring, romantic sweep of emotions have attracted many renowned soloist trios to the recording studio over the years: Stern, Rose and Istomin; Hess, Szigeti and Casals; Heifetz, Rubinstein and Feuermann; Katchen, Suk and Starker are some of the names that come to mind. (And imagine what Cortot, Thibaud and Casals might have done!)
Emanuel Ax and Yo-Yo Ma are no strangers to Brahms’ chamber music, having notably collaborated some 30 years ago with Isaac Stern and Jaime Laredo in powerful recordings of the piano quartets. They are joined here for the first time on disc by Greek violinist, Leonidas Kavakos, whose own Brahms recordings (of both the violin sonatas and the concerto) have been well received. The group first performed the Brahms Piano Trios at the Tanglewood Festival in 2015 and now they are taking them on the road with a US tour in 2018.
There’s no doubting the ardour that these players bring to the music, which is delivered with an eye to creating broad, sweeping phrases. A good case in point is the opening of the well-known B Major Trio, Op. 8 (played in its revised version). Onward melodic flow is paramount and there are plenty of opportunities to swoon along the way. Quieter moments also enchant: the descending piano cascades in the scherzo of the C Major Trio, Op. 87, the second movement of the C Minor Trio, Op. 101 with its cello pizzicato or the lopsided lilt of the following movement are all deftly handled. Brahms’ grander utterances also catch fire and the finales of each trio leave no doubt that the players are thoroughly enjoying themselves. Sony’s engineering captures Brahms’ carefully layered textures well and presents a natural blend of all three instruments, while allowing the listener to savour the distinctive brightness of Kavakos’s 1734 ‘Willemotte’ Stradivarius and the more burnished timbre of Ma’s 1712 ‘Davidoff’ Strad.
In his booklet note, Ax rightly observes that the glory of works such as these is that no one performance can exhaust their riches. These ‘big picture’ performances bring a freshness and an exhilaration to the music, providing a welcome complement to other equally distinguished recordings in the catalogue.