From symphonic Beethoven to John Williams world premiere with Emanuel Ax, Leonidas Kavakos and Yo-Yo Ma

Partnership in Beethoven: Yo-Yo Ma, Emanuel Ax and Leonidas Kavakos

Joined onstage at Walt Disney Concert Hall for Saturday afternoon’s Colburn Celebrity Recital, pianist Emanuel Ax, violinist Leondas Kavakos and cellist Yo-Yo Ma took the almost sold-out house on a veritable joyride through the Ludwig van Beethoven realm with their invigorating performances of two of the composer’s most dazzling masterpieces.

While the second half was dedicated to Piano Trio in B-flat major, op. 97 (1811), a true repertoire cornerstone, better know by its nickname, Archduke, the opening of the afternoon featured a far more unusual guest to chamber recitals, that is to say the immaculately-shaped Symphony No. 4 in B-flat major, op. 60 (1804-06), given in splendid new arrangement for violin, cello and piano, commissioned by the trio from the pianist Shai Wosner.

Launched as a pandemic initiative by Ax, Kavakos and Ma, the idea of performing and recording the Beethoven symphonies in their chamber guises got underway with a captivating take on Symphony No. 2 in D major, op. 36 (1801-03), recast as piano trio by Ferdinand Ries and the composer in 1805, paired on Sony’s disc account with Colin Matthews’s 2021 arrangement of Symphony No. 5 in C minor, op. 67 (1804-08). Extending into the post-Covid era, their second album, released in November, gives us the Pastoral Symphony, op. 68 (1802-08) in another fine adaptation from Wosner.

”It used to be completely normal that the first release of a symphony would not be the full score, because to hear an orchestra was a very rare event. You wouldn’t get that music until dozens of years later; you would get the arrangement for one piano, four hands, or trio, or quartet, and that’s how you got to know the music. So we’re going back to the roots”, Ax writes in the program note for their latest album.

These notions, restated by the pianist in his opening commentary at Disney Hall, serve as an apt reminder of the key role of solid chamber reductions in symphonic repertoire throughout the nineteenth century. As further elaborated by Ma in his contribution to the aforementioned note, participating in a symphony is an extraordinary feat for any musician.

“One of the things that has separated people since recording began is the categories that we put people in, in which chamber musicians, orchestra players, people who play concertos, people who do transcriptions, people who compose, people who conduct, are all viewed as separate categories with no overlap. That siloed thinking discourages actual creativity and collaboration between people. And so we feel that one of the things that is really important to do today is to actually go back to the first principles of music, the simple interaction between friends who want to do something together.”

Unlike the two monoliths surrounding it, the Fourth Symphony is lends itself quite organically for trio treatment. Somewhat more Haydnesquely proportioned, the score is wrought of sonic ideas displaying sublime potential, used to the fullest by the composer in the course of the symphony’s four-movement, thirty-five-minute arch.

The opening is to be counted among the most revolutionary sonic inventions by Beethoven. Emerging out of nowhere, the symphony begins with pure-tone drones and slowly unfolding oscillations, giving rise to a thrilling sounding paradox, a musical standstill charged with premonitions of the storms lying ahead. As performed by Ax, Kavakos and Ma, the introduction was clad in admirable translucence, with each harmonic layer and colorist nuance marked to the fullest, while keeping the expressive tone aptly dead-pan.

To paraphrase Wosner’s insightful program note, there’s a lot of Alexander Courage’s Star Trek on those opening pages, priming the symphony towards strange new worlds. Out of the Adagio, the symphony goes boldly to its roaring Allegro, laid down with joyful commitment by the trio. After taking many witty twists and turns, the movement lands on terra firma.

An extraordinary Adagio ensues. Propelled by persistent core ostinato pattern, juxtaposed with gradually unfolding melodic line, the movement is pure instrumental drama, taking hold on the listener from the very opening note and keeping one on the edge of the seat until the final double-bar. Performed with utmost clarity, the movement was awash with fine-tuned detail, from Ax’s delicate textures to Kavakos’s soaring lines, not forgetting Ma’s cameo as the timpani solosist.

Hearing the quirky Scherzo and its beamish Trio companion sounded out on two string instruments and keyboard was nothing short of epiphany. Rarely has its comedy played out with such rousing vigor as it did on Saturday’s performance. For there was such idiomacy in the music that, at times, it was indeed quite easy to forget that this music was not orginally conceived as piano trio.

The Allegro ma non troppo closing movement came off as resplendid Finale, binding the performance together with equal doses of virtuosity, drama and good humor, resulting in genuine musical summa. With Ax, Kavakos and Ma onstage, everything just seemed to come together in the most remarkable way, giving rise to an unforgettable outing.

Befittingly for the afternoon’s re-establishment of nineteenth-century Hausmusik sensibilities, each movement was saluted with applause, lending the event a delightful sense of easiness. Similarly, as the unusually large host of latecomers sought their way to their seats after the first movement, Ma jumped on an impromptu welcoming speech, keeping everybody well entertained until the trio was able to re-assume their musical quest.

Following the intermission, the Archduke Trio was heard. Written in a three-week creative burst in March 1811, the four-movement trio marks Beethoven’s most elaborate foray into the genre. Clocking at circa 45 minutes, the score is awash with sonic imagination and instrumental ingeniousness. The opening Allegro moderato employs the full potential of the sonata form, whereas the ensuing Scherzo and its fugal Trio provide the ensemble with an ideal vehicle for sweeping instrumental dexterity.

At the heart of the trio lies the exquisite Andante cantabile ma però con moto and its sublime fusion of song-like simplicity and refined variation techniques. After a good long while, the Allegro moderato fourth movement sneaks in, changing the scene from reflective musical talks to whirling dances. Closing in upbeat manner, the trio bids its fond farewell in style.

In the hands of Ax, Kavakos and Ma, the Archduke Trio was served with genuine inspiration and resplendent craft. The soaring melodic lines of the third movement went straight to zenith, casting a powerful spell over the transfixed audience. A reading of fine-tuned articulation and solid formal logic, the performance made a thorough impact.

What, one might ask, could steal the show after two such inspired performances of Beethoven. In this case, the answer was none other than John Williams, whose iconic Theme from Schindler’s List (1993) was heard as a profoundly captivating encore. Commissioned by the trio over a phone call with the composer, Williams’s pristine arrangement focuses on the prayer-like intimacy of the music, while retaining emotional subtlety of the original orchestral score.

Tailor-made to the trio, the Theme was given in a performance of contemplative finesse, one rooted in utmost sensitivity and nuanced musical commentary. Set as musical conversation by Williams, the trio arrangement re-invents the musical text in chamber context, providing new insight to those sublime, candle-lit textures inherent in the music; a touching postlude to an invigorating afternoon recital.

Emanuel Ax, piano

Leonidas Kavakos, violin

Yo-Yo Ma, cello

Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 4 in B-flat major, op. 60 (1804-06), arranged for piano trio by Shai Wosner

Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Trio in B-flat major, op. 97 ”Archduke” (1811)

Encore: John Williams: Theme from ”Schindler’s List” (1993), arranged for piano trio by John Williams

Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, California

Saturday January 28, 2 pm

© Jari Kallio

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