BRAHMS: The Complete Piano Trios – Emanuel Ax, piano/ Leonidas Kavakos, violin/ Yo-Yo Ma, cello – Sony 

BRAHMS: The Piano Trios = Piano Trio No. 2 in C Major, Op. 87; Piano Trio No. 3 in c minor, Op. 101; Piano Trio No. 1 in B Major, Op. 8 – Emanuel Ax, piano/ Leonidas Kavakos, violin/ Yo-Yo Ma, cello – Sony 88985 40729 2 (2 CDs) 29:00; 56:00 (9/15/17) ****: 

The three Brahms piano trios find expressive power in three equally kindred spirits.  

This set of the complete Brahms piano trios opens with the 1880-1882 Piano Trio No. 2, Op. 87, in which the composer’s style had transformed into a leaner, more economical style than had been his wont. The stringed instruments open the work in octaves—here Kavakos’ 1734 Stradivarius violin and Ma’s 1712 Stradivarius cello—with Ax’s Steinway entry on alternate beats, we have triple versus duple meters. The cross-rhythmic effect infiltrates the movement, with the two strings’ intoning thirds and sixth against the piano’s various accompaniments. The gift of (melancholic) melody still belongs to Brahms, as does an intimate warmth in this realization. The last page delivers a splendid, resolute peroration. The Andante con moto looks to Beethoven’s example of a double-theme and (five) variations, given a melody of Hungarian, gypsy flavor. Ax delivers a syncopated figure that Brahms finds equally worthy of development.  The meditative cast of the early variations exploits a sentimental lilt quite expressive and affecting, perhaps the very justification for the album as a whole.

The c minor Scherzo: Presto allows Brahms his Goethe or Mendelssohn moment, providing us a tripping Walpurgis-Night or “Scotch-Snap” effect that suddenly blooms into soaring emotionalism. The Finale: Allegro giocoso takes its model from Haydn, it seems, combining a rondo-sonata form with a penchant for variations that alternate legato and staccato motion. The last page shimmers in jubilation.

Brahms composed his c minor Trio, Op. 101 in 1887, almost in tandem with the so-called “Thun” Violin Sonata in A Major.  The first movement, Allegro energico, literally bursts outward, projecting a force we have heard earlier in the Piano Quartet in c, Op. 60. One biographer labels the affect “explosive wrath.” Often, the three instrumentalists play in unison, achieving a martial resolve. Emotionally pungent, the writing calls for considerable digital virtuosity from each player. Kavakos’ violin sings majestically, and Ax’s piano offers sweeping lines. Somehow, the lyrical impulse brings little consolation to the fierce drama that unfolds in this gripping music.

Something serpentine permeates the mood of the Presto non assai, in c minor. The dynamic of the entire, slinky movement remains relatively subdued, maintaining the piano designation. The Trio section only contributes more stealth, especially in the combination of the strings against the block-chord keyboard.  Brahms tests his musicians’ rhythmic gifts with a C Major Andante grazioso that indulges irregular metrics in 7/4 and later 15/8, breaking the pulse into five triplet groups. Essentially lyric, the antiphonal impulse imbibes the kind of uneasiness in the shifting rhythm that might presage Bartok. The Allegro molto finale returns to the storm of the first movement, perhaps reminiscing on the First Symphony and its own progression from minor to major. The grim confrontation with implacable Fate yields to a warm C Major that allows Yo-Yo Ma’s cello to flaunt its singing virtues.

Brahms had not been happy with his first conception of his 1854 B Major Trio, Op. 8, and so he revised it drastically in 1889. He wrote Clara Schumann that the new version “will not be so wild and dreary as before.” From the opening Allegro con brio, shared between Ax’s piano and Ma’s ardent cello, the music emerges both passionate and muscular at once, often touched by elements of edgy melancholy. Kavakos, too, grants us a firm, expressive line that that his two partners reinforce to dramatic effect. The keyboard part often assumes a concertante position, almost a minor concerto with string support.  The counter theme herein comes from the revision, Brahms having excised the original, perhaps looking to Schubert’s example of economy and chastity. For the last page, our principals milk the plastic tune for our money’s worth.

The Scherzo stands today as it had in its 1854 version, untouched. I still recall how Heifetz, Feuermann and Rubinstein made it sound with exquisite and polyphonic vibrancy, especially in the uncanny, mellow Trio section. Equally pert and incisive, our present musicians deliver a jaunty outer section that quite gallops ahead. The middle section gains power in the sizzling tremolandi figures from the strings. The wistful last page dissolves in a shifting sea of rapture. Brahms likewise left his poignant Adagio alone, given its natural, songful expression.  The music achieves moments of fine stasis, hovering in a mist of inwardness that likely nods to Schumann. I must say that I find Ma’s playing refreshed and chaste after several years of my impatience at his licenses, which often reminded me of Isaac Stern’s sloth and slovenliness when he failed to practice. The last movement reverses expectation, with the composer’s wish to end a major-key piece in the minor mode. The last movement indulges the piano’s virtuoso power, and the music often lilts in syncopations. Kavakos and Ma indulge in equally sweeping gestures, while Ax can impel his piano to serve as a miniature symphony.

The sound production has been quiet and finely honed, having been produced at Mechanics Hall, Worcester, Massachusetts, under the watchful ear of Recording Engineer Richard King.

—Gary Lemco

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