Emanuel Ax, Leonidas Kavakos, Yo-o Ma. The Barbican would have been fortunate to receive any one of these musicians as an opener for their new season, let alone all three together. The programme of Brahms’ three piano trios could not have been further from the previous evening’s Last Night of the Proms. The trio are well familiar with the works, having recorded them last year. Although the recording is, without a doubt, phenomenal, the Barbican is a different beast: many a chamber ensemble has been swallowed in its cavernous depths. Ax (piano), Kavakos (violin) and Ma (cello) are enormous personalities in their own rights, but whether they could translate the intimacy of their recording in the hall was another question.

Leonidas Kavakos, Emanuel Ax and Yo-Yo Ma © Mark Allan | Barbican
Leonidas Kavakos, Emanuel Ax and Yo-Yo Ma
© Mark Allan | Barbican

Certainly, the opening Allegro of Piano Trio no. 2 in C major, Op 87, took a few minutes to settle. (Brahms’ First Trio finished the concert, having been revised after the publication of the Second and Third). Kavakos and Ma passed the line beautifully to each other, but some entrances felt a little shaky. From the start, Ax was the glue in the partnership, equally sensitive in his flourishes between the octave strings, and in his cushioned falling and rising arpeggios and wistful snatches of melody.

With such big personalities together, it would have been all too easy for each to attempt to upstage the other. This was not so: if anything, both no. 2 and no. 3, in C minor, were a little too careful: voices melded beautifully, but did not always completely sparkle. The Scherzo, hushed and almost menacing, relaxed wonderfully into the Trio – that the quieter passages did not always completely fill the hall was to their advantage in these tense, suspenseful movements. The Third's Trio was rocky in places, but all the better for it: as if all three musicians were beginning to throw far more caution to the wind.

With this trio, there seemed to be no leader, but each phrase was beautifully dovetailed to the next, across players and across strings, and it was at times difficult to tell where one instrument ended and the next began.

If the first two trios were in one voice, the third flowered into a conversation. There is far more life and thrust in the Piano Trio no. 1 in B major, Op.8, and coming after the interval, it felt refreshed, flushed with vitality. Ax’s moment came in an electrifyingly poised Scherzo and in the graceful Adagio: utterly captivating, and effortlessly fragile, this was the golden moment. The sensitivity between the players was here clear to see: Ma and Kavakos entwining their sumptuous lines, cushioned by the most delicate touch by Ax. Music of this quality, even among such greats, is rare. All three musicians are virtuosic soloists in their own right, but here they became far more than the sum of their parts. Proof, if needed, that so much of the best music is made without ego, without leadership tussles, without arrogance – it is made together.