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At Tanglewood, an all-Beethoven program from an all-star trio

Violinist Leonidas Kavakos, pianist Emanuel Ax, and cellist Yo-Yo Ma took a bow Friday at Tanglewood.Hilary Scott

LENOX — The trinity of cellist Yo-Yo Ma, pianist Emanuel Ax, and violinist Leonidas Kavakos do not perform together under a unified name, nor do they need to. When the most recognized cellist in the world is in your piano trio, the tickets sell themselves. (Kavakos and Ax are classical music celebrities in their own right, but for sheer visibility it’d be tough to surpass Ma, who made national news a few months ago when he got his COVID vaccine in Pittsfield and serenaded everyone in the clinic with Schubert and Bach during the mandatory 15-minute observation period.) Friday evening, the Koussevitzky Music Shed was packed to the allowable capacity, the lawn spread with blankets. “It doesn’t get much better than this,” a woman behind me said before the trio emerged.

High praise, and for Friday evening’s all-Beethoven program, well deserved. Ma and Ax have collaborated for decades, often alongside the late Isaac Stern. Kavakos joined them to record Brahms’s three piano trios in 2018, and the trio continued to collaborate regularly until the pandemic shutdown. That they picked up where they left off bodes well for the future.


The program zeroed in on the composer’s early works. The Piano Trio in C minor, numbered Opus 1: not Beethoven’s first work to be published, but very much a product of the period when the young virtuoso pianist was establishing himself as a composer. Then, from eight years later, the piano trio arrangement of his Symphony No. 2, which was published in the same year the symphony was premiered. Beethoven’s early pieces are often talked about as foreshadowing for grander things to come (how many times have you heard Symphony No. 2 compared to 3 or 5?), and it was almost surprising to hear them treated as complete and complex on their own.

With moody, ominous gestures, Kavakos and Ma ran a dark current through the piano trio. Ax joined in their thunder for brief moments of unison, but maintained a milder baseline. The third movement Minuetto saw the three storming through boldly accented phrases together, then Ax adding sweeter and buoyant flourishes on top. The arc of the piece was finely honed, with no iteration of any musical idea exactly the same; the gentle smile that lit up Ma’s face when he watched the others during his tacets was music in itself. It’d probably be hard to find a person who was happier to be there.


Instead of leaving the stage for a mid-program breather, the trio (led by Ma) warmly greeted the audience and added some context to the piano trio arrangement of the symphony, noting that many music lovers in Beethoven’s time would have more easily been able to hear the symphony in piano-trio format than travel to hear a full orchestra performing it. They promised to give “an approximation” of what it would sound like were the BSO on stage, but no pale shadow was this; given the choice between the trio and most orchestras, I’d take the trio.

Kavakos’s violin was the brashest voice of the evening, with Ax’s assertive but temperate piano in the eye of the hurricane and Ma bridging the gap between the two. Everything was colored by what came before it in this performance; after the raging and roaring first movement, the second arrived like the tentative calm after strife. When Kavakos first picked up that second movement’s cozy melody, he did so with a careful touch, almost as if it might break if he breathed on it too hard. By the time the end of the movement arrived, he had adopted a fuller sound, with bittersweet inflections. By the final movement, the tank seemed to be running low. The theme, almost slapstick in quality, wasn’t as exuberant as it could be, and Ax’s pulse wasn’t as unshakeable as it had been, but all rallied back for the gallop to the finish line.


A standing ovation was instant, and listeners hoping to beat the traffic immediately started filing toward the exits. Almost all turned back when the trio returned to the stage and launched into the most famous four notes in classical music: at the end of an all-Beethoven program, who was going to turn down a chance to hear the three giants take the Fifth?


At Tanglewood, Lenox. July 30.

A.Z. Madonna can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.

A.Z. Madonna can be reached at Follow her @knitandlisten.