Ma, Ax and Kavakos bring bracing advocacy to Beethoven with a pared-down “Pastorale”

March 11, 2022
By Jonathan Blumhofer
Leonidas Kavakos, Emanuel Ax and Yo-Yo Ma performed music of Beethoven Wednesday night at Symphony Hall for the Celebrity Series. Photo: Robert Torres

“You really should hear the arrangement for full orchestra,” one wit joked at intermission on Wednesday evening. “I’m told it’s pretty good, too.”

He was referring to Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6, a work no doubt familiar to most who packed Symphony Hall last night to hear the all-star lineup of violinist Leonidas Kavakos, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and pianist Emanuel Ax play music by that composer. The threesome led off their latest Celebrity Series appearance by unveiling a new piano-trio adaptation of the Sixth by Shai Wosner. 

It is definitely an ear-catching experience. In thinning out the orchestral fabric, Wosner’s bracingly illuminated the music’s motivic strands. Accordingly, the Sixth’s contrasts of mood, dynamics, and texture all stand out even more viscerally than before. So do the thematic connections between movements, like the subtle relationship between the first’s tumbling subject and the concluding “Hirtengesang” refrain.

What’s more, Wosner’s setting—especially when played with the purposeful tempos and vigorous energy it received Wednesday night— offers a sense of rhythmic edge and excitement one doesn’t always encounter in modern-orchestra readings of the Sixth.

Granted, some moments of this reworking aren’t as successful as others: the climax of the fourth movement, with its shimmering diminished seventh chords, sounds like it should be accompanying a chase scene in a Buster Keaton film. But the larger arrangement works, highlighting details in this favorite one might not otherwise catch in an orchestral rendition.

Wednesday’s performance benefited from drawing out the distinctive musicianship of each member of the ensemble. Kavakos, playing with minimal vibrato and pure tone, provided a near-ideal foil for the sumptuous warmth of Ma’s cello and Ax’s pearly keyboard articulations. While there were some blurry moments in the third and fourth movements, the first two unfolded with engrossing, near-improvisatory focus, and the finale soared.

There was no lack of personality to this interpretation, either. The bird calls at the end of the second movement (reworked here as a mix of trills and string harmonics) fluttered beautifully, while the “Merry gathering’s” syncopations were lusty and snapping.

A similar concentration also marked the Kavakos-Ma-Ax Trio’s charismatic accounts of the “Gassenhauer” and “Ghost” Trios.

The latter, written in 1797, is a charming, if largely inconsequential, entry in the genre. Even so, Kavakos and Ma offered a masterclass in bow control and intensity over its gorgeous Adagio, and the three players made invigorating, brilliant work of its whimsical finale.

They brought further bold divergences of mood to the D-major “Ghost” Trio. On Wednesday, its first movement mixed fervency and warmth in equal measure. The Largo hauntingly balanced nervous rhythms, shifting textures, and flowing lyricism, Ax ensuring that the piano’s menacing low trills hovered on a knife’s edge.

In the finale, though, carefree abandon reigned. Indeed, this was as genial and songful a Presto as they come, the rustic, competitive episodes over its closing pages coming across with conspicuous panache.

Afterwards, the group offered the third movement of Beethoven’s Trio in E-flat major, op. 70, No. 2 for an encore.

To lead off the recital, Kavakos, speaking on behalf of his colleagues, dedicated the Trio’s performance of the Ukrainian national anthem as “a message of love and support” to those under attack in a distant land. It was an affecting gesture, though, in future, perhaps such tokens can also be paired with more practical actions—like donations of food, home goods, or money for those displaced by this unnecessary conflict.

The Celebrity Series presents Anthony McGill, Susanna Philips, and Myra Huang performing music by Franz Schubert, James Lee III, and William Grant Still at 3 p.m. Sunday at GBH Calderwood Studio.

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