Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax have performed together for decades, since the days they were Isaac Stern's chamber music partners. More recently, they have repeatedly joined forces with the younger Leonidas Kavakos in exploring the string trio repertoire. When these famed musicians decided to perform three evenings of Beethoven's music at Carnegie Hall, the events were meant to be a part of the Beethoven 250 celebrations as much as an homage to Isaac Stern, whose centennial we also commemorate in 2020. If the latter's shadow were present in the auditorium that bears his name on Friday night, it would certainly be smiling benevolently upon an outstanding performance that reflected what one of the greatest violinists of the 20th century stood for: respect for the score, intensity and warmth in every rendered sound, making technical virtuosity just a means for sculpting musical concepts, not a goal per se.

Leonidas Kavakos, Emanuel Ax and Yo-Yo Ma © Jennifer Taylor
Leonidas Kavakos, Emanuel Ax and Yo-Yo Ma
© Jennifer Taylor

The three recitals were conceived as having a similar structure: a sonata for cello and, respectively, violin, before the interval, followed by a trio afterwards. Works were not necessarily ordered to illuminate the evolutionary path underlining Beethoven's career and there was no clear indication on why certain opuses were selected and paired. Nevertheless, the level of playing was outstanding.

The years before 1802 are considered to be marked by Beethoven’s successful attempts to leave behind the influence of Haydn and Mozart’s classicism, not as a locus for his tremendous, visionary inventiveness. But there are counterexamples, and the two Cello Sonatas Op.5 are evident ones. In 1796, cellos were still very much used for basso continuo accompaniments. Composing these two sonatas and dedicating them to King Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia, an avid amateur cellist, Beethoven made the bold decision to alternately offer both instrumentalists the prominent role, despite the difficulties in maintaining a balanced sound. Modern instruments are less prone to such a disequilibrium and Ax’s avoidance of any extra flashiness combined with Ma’s natural eloquence and penetrating vibrato contributed to a truly serene performance with seamless transitions from the main voice to the accompanist. Dynamic contrasts could have been more pregnant, but the slow introduction was especially remarkable for its intensity and conveyed sense of expectation.

Beethoven wrote nine of his 10 sonatas for violin and piano in the same period, before 1803. The distancing from the Mozart and Haydn elegant models is less radical here, even if modern renditions try to view these works through the lens of Beethoven’s later opuses, thus adding too many sharp edges. Ax and Kavakos – who occasionally seemed to hold too much back – kept the texture of the Violin Sonata no. 6 in A major light and neat. Rightfully so, they placed the emphasis on the lyrical Adagio molto espressivo with its plangent violin introduced theme and its mysterious, Schubert-sounding B-flat section.

Leonidas Kavakos, Emanuel Ax and Yo-Yo Ma © Jennifer Taylor
Leonidas Kavakos, Emanuel Ax and Yo-Yo Ma
© Jennifer Taylor

In the lovely Piano Trio no. 6 in E flat major, Ax, Kavakos and Ma imbued the Allegretto ma non troppo with a similar Schubertian air, while underlining, in the outer movements, the long shadow that Haydn cast over an 1808 Beethovenian score. For a group of instrumentalists that seldom play together, the level of rhythmic, timbral and, most important, conceptual coordination was amazing.

In the encore, the three musicians clearly established another bridge over time. Heartfully rendering the Andante con moto from Brahms' Piano Trio no. 2 in C major they demonstrated how much a theme and variations pattern, composed more than seven decades later, still owed to the Beethovenian model, including a special interest in Hungarian-like syncopated rhythms.

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