Brahms Piano Trios from Ma, Ax, and Kavakos

Overflowing with heart, Brahms' three Trios for violin, cello, and piano are amongst the most venerated chamber works in the literature. Completed over a span of 35 years, they reveal Brahms forever true to his love and longing. Again and again it surfaces, expressed through an irrepressible love for melody, Hungarian and gypsy sentiments, romance and drama that sings and sighs at its most vulnerable in this special, two-disc Sony recording of the Brahms Piano Trios from cellist Yo-Yo Ma, pianist Emanuel Ax, and violinist Leonidas Kavakos.

Surprising as it may seem, this seems to be the first time that Ma, age 62, and Ax, age 68, have recorded these works. Together with Kavakos—the young 'un at 50—their trio joins a historic lineage of great musicians on record that includes several iterations of the superb Beaux Arts Trio, and encompasses such illustrious couplings as Istomin Stern & Rose, Rubinstein, Fournier & Szeryng and, in recordings of one or more of the trios, Serkin, Busch & Busch.

As Ax points out in his succinct but telling liner notes, one reason the piano trios are so memorable is that the notoriously self-critical Brahms destroyed most of his chamber works. What survived is exemplary.

Brahms always waited until the time was right before composing, and frequently undertook extensive revision. A case in point is the Piano Trio No.1 in B, Op. 8, which is performed here (as is customary) in the revision Brahms completed 35 years after its initial publication in 1854—the year in which he turned 21. Overflowing with melody, the opening theme is so gorgeous that it can take your breath away. The only thing that may get to you more is the Adagio, which, like so many of Brahms' slower movements, leaves you feeling as though you know the great man's soul.

I auditioned the two-disc set in 24/96 WAV format, and came away feeling that while the tonalities of everyone's instruments was spot on, the recording would not win awards for either transparency or depth. But that matters little when three musicians begin the Piano Trio No.2 in C, Op. 87 with such a mixture of fire, sighs and longing as to suggest that the romantic spirit exemplified by Arthur Rubinstein and other great Brahmsians is alive and well. Many sections of the first movement of the second trio are indescribably beautiful, with contrasts between relaxed and animated passages highlighted to deepen the music's impact.

The sadness of the C major trio's second movement, Andante, is immediate, while the beauty of its middle section makes clear why Brahms has joined Bach and Beethoven as one of the most exalted composers since the Middle Ages. Ax, Ma, and Kavakos go all out in the Finale, bringing the trio to a rousing close.

Trio No.3 in c, Op.101 dates from 1887, when Brahms turned 54. The aching of Brahms' heart is immediately felt in the energetic opening Allegro. By contrast, the second movement includes some delightful scampering figures.

"Gorgeous" is a word I prefer to use sparingly, lest I sound too much like a group of my mother's friends talking about the beauties of one of their son's fiancés, but there's no other way to describe how Brahms expresses sadness with such tenderness in the third movement. The trio's conclusion is as triumphant as the musicianship.

Ortofan's picture

... waned after hearing him flub the opening bars of the third movement of the Beethoven "Emperor" concerto at Tanglewood some years ago.

He seems to have fared much better in this outing:

As for these Brahms works, my choice would be a performance by the Istomin-Stern-Rose trio.

pbarach's picture

"Manny" included. I saw him give a note-perfect performance of Strauss's Burleske with the Cleveland Orchestra, and he has given fine performances here in CLE a number of times. I won't argue with your enjoyment of the Istomin-Stern-Rose set, but have you heard these new recordings, or are you put off by Ax's keyboard flub years ago?

I've heard many fine pianists make mistakes in concert, including Argerich, Horowitz, and Rubinstein. Basically, so what...

Ortofan's picture

... a bad day. But having paid admission, should that stop me from being disappointed? It was the Sunday afternoon concert and was being broadcast on radio, so I was expecting better. Also, I am particularly familiar with the piece, so the error really stood out. Most others in the audience likely never noticed.

It's the same for me when a supposedly "professional" performer sings the word "banner" in the Star Spangled Banner improperly. While the correct way is "ba-ner-er", many performers insert an extra syllable and sing it incorrectly as "ba-a-ner-er". If you are aware of the difference, it can really grate on you.

I have listened to the new Brahms recording. While I prefer the sound quality of the new issue, I'd still opt for the performance by the Istomin-Stern-Rose trio.

Ktracho's picture

Mistakes (or lack thereof in some cases) are what makes a live performance magical! I once heard Serkin mess up Bach's Italian Concerto, which everyone knows well, in Washington, D.C., and I heard Alicia de Larrocha have a memory slip playing Beethoven's Sonata No. 15, which I used to be able to play from memory (not anywhere near as well as she, though), at the recital hall next to Carnegie Hall if I'm not mistaken. (She did a really great job not making it obvious if you didn't know the piece - it just ended up being a few seconds longer than it should have been due to the added chord progression.) To me, the experience and the approach/interpretation matters more. However, I think my wife's priorities could be slightly different than mine. Anyway, it's nice having another great recording to choose from!

dalethorn's picture

I certainly can't complain about the sound - warm, lush, romantic -I could listen to this forever. It's been over 50 years since I played classical piano, yet this seems so familiar.