In March 2020, a piano trio was playing Beethoven concerts in Carnegie Hall, in honor of the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth. Then Carnegie Hall shut down, as the world at large did. The piano trio was back, for more Beethoven, last night. The players were Emanuel Ax (piano), Leonidas Kavakos (violin), and Yo-Yo Ma (cello).
They did not begin with Beethoven, however. They began with the Ukrainian national anthem. Kavakos, speaking to the audience, said the trio wanted to show its “respect” to the Ukrainian people. Also to send them “force and love.” The audience stood, solemnly, for the playing of that solemn anthem.
First on the program was Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 in F major, the “Pastoral,” arranged by Shai Wosner for piano trio. You may recall hearing Glenn Gould play the “Pastoral,” in the solo-piano arrangement by Liszt. (Go here.) Extraordinary. Wosner is a pianist born in Israel in 1976. He studied with Emanuel Ax at Juilliard. Wosner has a program note about his arrangement, and he ends it with a charming line: “Rather than a country fair, the version for trio, in its intimacy, is a picnic for three.”
Early on, the symphony seemed too little to me—a toy version of a great symphony (pastoral though it is). “Why bother?” I thought. “There are so many real piano trios to play.” I then thought the version would be better off in someone’s home—the salon of an archduke, for example. I further thought it would be better in Weill Recital Hall, upstairs, or Zankel Hall, downstairs. (These are auxiliary halls in the building known as “Carnegie Hall.”) The main auditorium was too big for this “picnic for three.”
But, you know? I got used to what I was hearing, as one does.
The players, good as they are, were not immaculate. There were flies at the picnic. Momentary disunity, for example. And Ma was guilty of some poor intonation, rare for him. But there were lovely moments as well. The brook ran smoothly, thanks in large part to Ax, who was not only smooth but also pearly: pearly in his piano sounds. When the group played the bird calls, the audience giggled. I thought Beethoven would have appreciated that. (Shai Wosner, sitting in the audience, must have too.)
How about the peasants’ dance? It was rough, but you could appreciate the vigor. The storm brewed effectively—it broke out effectively too. Then the music breathed the peace it should.
After intermission, the trio played two Beethoven piano trios (proper ones). They were the one in B flat, Op. 11, nicknamed “Gassenhauer,” and the one in D major, Op. 70, No. 1, nicknamed “Ghost.” In its program booklets, Carnegie Hall has a nice tradition: they let you know who first played a particular work in Carnegie Hall. First to play the “Gassenhauer” Trio were Vladimir Horowitz, Nathan Milstein, and Gregor Piatigorsky, in 1932. How would you like to have been there?
But listen: the Ax-Kavakos-Ma performance of this work was very, very good too. The players were coherent. They “clicked” or “interlocked.” The highest compliment I can give this playing is that it was Beethoven-like. (In Beethoven, you want to be Beethoven-like.) The playing reflected good sense, all through.
Let me mention one detail. The last movement is a theme-and-variations. Variation II is a little fugue, begun by the cello. Intoning his line, Yo-Yo Ma was so, so beautiful.
Let me make a general statement about Emanuel Ax, too. Like the world at large, I have been listening to him play since the 1970s, I believe. I have never heard him better than this season. In December, he played a Mozart concerto with the New York Philharmonic (No. 17 in G major, K. 453). Superb. (For my review, go here.) Last night, he was again superb. Seldom will you hear such beautiful phrasing, or, better put, right phrasing. Correct phrasing. Ax was limpid, sturdy, poetic, boisterous, and everything else you need to be in these works. Quite simply, he put on a clinic of Beethoven playing.
The “Ghost” was ghostly, certainly in the second movement, where he, or she, or it, appears. And the players gave us an encore: more Beethoven, from the Piano Trio in E flat, Op. 70, No. 2. The music was warm, songful, and beautifully proportioned. A satisfying evening, thanks to Beethoven, and these three friends (of the composer and one another).