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Music Review

All-star trio bring Brahms brilliance to Symphony Hall 

From left: Leonidas Kavakos, Emanuel Ax, and Yo-Yo Ma performing at Symphony Hall.Robert Torres

When some world-class chamber ensembles perform, the players are so attuned to one another that they seem to be nodes of a single brain. Even if their instruments sound dissimilar, one could imagine that the sound is coming from a single hybrid contraption.

The trio of violinist Leonidas Kavakos, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and pianist Emanuel Ax is not one such group. At every juncture of Wednesday night’s all-Brahms Celebrity Series concert at Symphony Hall, it was clear the musicians were of three unique minds, and with that, three unique and brilliant approaches that made for fascinating musical conversations onstage. For their distinct individuality, they were no less harmonious.


The three are currently touring the country with this Brahms program and another Brahms/Schubert program, on the heels of a September album release on Sony Classical. To the stage, Ma brought the personable and sanguine style that has made him an ambassador of the often insular classical music world. He surged nearly out of his chair in the wildest moments, and a smile lit up his face at the cozy commencement of the “Andante grazioso” movement of the Trio No. 3 — the group’s favorite moment in the program, according to The New York Times. Conversely, no one could call Kavakos staid, but he is definitely an introspective performer, not much of a showman. At the piano behind the two string players, Ax was alert and on point, meeting the other players’s eyes frequently.

Brahms’s Trios No. 2 and No. 3 made up the first half. Melodic leadership is ambiguous in those two pieces, and the violin and cello frequently play separated in octaves or uncomplicated harmonies. Ma had hints of salt and astringency in his timbre, a drastic contrast to Kavakos’s more lyrical approach. Ax, a consummate pianistic powerhouse, turned his sound on a dime; light sparkles seamlessly transformed into thunderous roars. Darkness shrouded the beginning of the Trio No. 2’s third-movement scherzo, making the subsequent outburst all the more brilliant. As the audience applauded, Kavakos scurried forward to retrieve Ma’s mute, which had fallen off.


The first movement of Trio No. 3 was bellicose, but Kavakos seemed to absorb some of Ma’s playful spirit, grooving with the music. The tender third movement had an intriguingly bright, hollow sonority.

After intermission it was Trio No. 1, written when the composer was 20 and then revised 45 years later. The songlike opening melody melted in milk-chocolate sweetness, and the jagged second theme stood in sharp relief. When the first theme returned, it was wayworn, laced with the weight of experience.

Ax’s melancholic, chiming chords provided a stunning foundation for the third movement. The string players held the rest before the final note for an extra breath, perhaps making sure the errant cellphone that had interrupted the penultimate phrase was silenced. One storm-tossed finale later, they took their bows to the cheers of a sold-out house. Ax was still raring to go, fairly skipping onto the stage to lead the others on for a Schubert encore.


Presented by Celebrity Series of Boston. At Symphony Hall, Wednesday night.

Zoë 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.