Not Quite Lost in Space: Kavakos-Ax-Ma play Beethoven

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Yo-Yo Ma, Leonidas Kavakos, and Emanuel Ax. Photo Hilary Scott.
Yo-Yo Ma, Leonidas Kavakos, and Emanuel Ax. Photo Hilary Scott.

Tanglewood Concert, July 30, 2021
Leonidas Kavakos, violin; Yo-Yo Ma, cello; Emanuel Ax, piano

Beethoven – Trio in C minor, op. 1 no. 3
Beethoven – Symphony no. 2 in D major, op. 36, arranged for piano trio by the composer
Encore: Symphony no. 5 in C minor, op. 67: first movement

Yo-Yo Ma pointed out that the trio arrangement that Beethoven made of his Symphony no. 2 allowed musical amateurs to experience this work at home in lieu of the (rare) opportunity of hearing it in a live performance. The arrangement was published many years before the orchestral original was performed outside of Vienna. It was meant to be played and heard in a domestic space in which scale of its gestures would present themselves in the correct proportions, filling the salon with what, for its time, was its larger-than-life energy and personality. 

Performing this intriguing arrangement on the stage of the Tanglewood Music Shed, therefore, presented a unique challenge for both performers and audience. For the performers, there must have been a temptation to push their instruments beyond their limits to make up for the relatively low-power way in which symphonic ideas had been translated, from an ensemble of sixty players to that of three. I have even heard concerto soloists in this space who gave in to the temptation, attempting to reach the rear of the 7000-seat auditorium, including Yo-Yo Ma himself; this led to a fragmentation of the musical line with each phrase being flung out, like a right-fielder trying to throw out a runner at home plate—not a good idea for a thrower with a normal arm or for a musician. Happily, the Kavakos-Ma-Ax trio did not give in to this urge; they wisely allowed the ears of the listeners to adjust to the appropriate scope of their collective sound, and the result was a (largely) attentive public focusing in on an intimate discourse among musicians who seemed to be playing as much for their own enjoyment as for that of their auditors. 

It may be that the repertory was chosen with this in mind. The opening work, Trio no. 3 in C minor, is the work that introduced Beethoven’s “Sturm und Drang” voice to the public, a voice that would eventually be stereotyped through over-exposure to works such as the Pathétique and Moonlight Sonatas, the Third Piano Concerto, and the Fifth Symphony. Although there were precedents for this stormy mood in this key by earlier composers such as Johann Stamitz, Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach, and even Joseph Haydn, Beethoven pushed its intensity to a new level, to the point where Haydn advised him against publishing it for fear that its primal energy would offend the ears of aristocratic listeners. I have to admit that the fangs and claws of the first movement were blunted by the vast spaces it was required to fill; the sonic shocks of biting accents or sudden silences felt tame, even in the hands of musicians who fully understand this idiom. This was partly due to the adjustment needed by our ears, as if our aural telescopes had not calibrated the correct magnification to compensate for the distance involved, and partly due to the musicians themselves adjusting to the acoustic circumstances. The second movement, a theme and variations, belongs more conventionally to the Viennese classical style of the moment, and was played with particular elegance, especially by Emmanuel Ax, who carried the lion’s share (minus claws) of the musical argument; elegance is certainly one of Ax’s strongest suits. With the piano playing the central role, the movement adhered more closely to the conventions of the piano trio as established by Haydn and Mozart.

By the time the last two movements of the trio arrived, players and audience seemed to have settled in, prepared to then experience the take-home version of the symphony. Hearing this familiar work in an unfamiliar arrangement can have two opposite outcomes: either it reveals unsuspected facets by means of a new clarity and transparency, or one forgets it is an arrangement and imagines the colors and weights of the orchestral version. In a way, both of these occurred: the buoyancy and rhythmic precision (Ax’s dotted notes!) of this performance would have been ideal but rarely-achieved characteristics of performances involving sixty or more players. The vitality and ‘swing’ of this performance made sitting still difficult.

On the other hand, Beethoven’s arrangement was so canny that the musical narrative remained in the foreground, and the deployment of parts to piano and strings achieved much of the same structural effect as the orchestral original. This was made evident by the encore, a trio arrangement of the first movement of the Fifth Symphony, whose opening elicited gasps and chuckles. While the still relatively classical scale of the Second Symphony lent itself to an effective trio arrangement, the (for its time) over-the-top muscle of the Fifth made it an incongruous candidate for the same treatment. And in fact, the arrangement that was played was clearly from a later period, possibly the late nineteenth century. The arranger here attempted to push the instruments, particularly the piano, to replicate the visceral force of Beethoven’s orchestra in much the same way that Liszt did in his arrangements for solo piano and for piano four-hands and two pianos. What attracted attention was the hand of the arranger rather than the composer; the over-familiarity of the music called attention to the transformations: that the oboe solo of the recapitulation was recast as a violin solo; that the growling double basses were now metamorphosed into cluster-like Lisztian rumbles from depths of the piano keyboard that did not exist on the pianos of Beethoven’s time, etc. 

Needless to say, the performances were exemplary, and beyond that exhibited an old-fashioned romanticism in the most lyrical moments, especially the second movement of the symphony, which for me was the high point of the evening. Kavakos and Ma are not a natural pairing, although they clearly enjoy playing together. Kavakos is the cooler partner, with a more focused sound and biting articulation, and in general favoring energy and drive. Ma is warmer and emotionally generous: in this movement and in other lyrical moments he used a subtle portamento, a way of gliding from note to note that used to be commonplace for string players, but went out of fashion in the last 50 years. The lyricism this conveyed proved infectious, and Kavakos warmed up his approach, providing transcendent moments in the Larghetto that reminded me of my favorite trio of the past, that of Heifetz-Rubenstein-Feuermann. I’d like to think that the elegance and passion of these moments reached the rear sections of the Shed and out the lawn beyond.

Yo-Yo Ma, Leonidas Kavakos, and Emanuel Ax. Photo Hilary Scott.
Yo-Yo Ma, Leonidas Kavakos, and Emanuel Ax. Photo Hilary Scott.
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