A virtuosic trio and a lively Beethoven at Chicago’s Symphony Center

United StatesUnited States Beethoven: Emanuel Ax (piano), Leonidas Kavakos (violin), Yo-Yo Ma (cello). Symphony Center, Chicago, 11.3.2022. (JLZ)

Yo-Yo Ma, Emanuel Ax, Leonidas Kavakos © Nigel Perry

Beethoven – Symphony No.6 in F major, Op.68 ‘Pastoral’ (arr. Shai Wosner); Piano Trio in B-flat major, Op.11 ‘Gassenhauer’; Piano Trio in D major, Op.70 No.1 ‘Ghost’

The almost sold-out house for the latest offering in Symphony Center’s Chamber Music series brought Chicago audiences three Beethoven works, performed impeccably by Emanuel Ax, Leonidas Kavakos and Yo-Yo Ma. With such skilled performers, the music-making was unquestionably impressive, and the sensitivity to the other musician’s parts was evident in the persuasive style they brought to all three pieces.

The program opened with a version of Beethoven’s Symphony No.6 for piano trio, in an arrangement by Shai Wosner, an award-winning pianist who studied with Emanuel Ax. Based on an idea by Ax (per Wosner’s program notes), this version of the ‘Pastoral’ takes its cue from Beethoven’s own arrangement of his Symphony No.2 for the same grouping. While some of the reasons that composers like Beethoven pursued chamber-music versions of large-scale pieces may no longer have relevance in the twenty-first century, the merit of Wosner’s effort is that it brings out the musical ideas within the work.

From the first notes of the opening, the ensemble made a strong impression. This was no slavish imitation of the orchestral score: the essential lines emerged readily and guided the audience through the composer’s ideas. This was particularly evident in the second movement, which could stand alone as a piece for piano trio. In various places the spare timbres of the chamber ensemble made the music even more impressive, as with the cello in the opening of the ‘Shepherd’s Song’ in the final Scherzo. This was a tour-de-force movement for the ensemble, with the three players working as one to express the music with grace and aplomb.

After the intermission, the program continued with two works that Beethoven composed expressly for a trio, the Piano Trio in B-flat major (‘Gassenhauer’) and the Piano Trio in D major (‘Ghost’). In the ‘Gassenhauer’, which spun out like clockwork, the first movement evinced a sense of spontaneity. It sounded as if each musician knew the others’ parts as well as their own: in fact, the latter quality is essential in the slow movement, where line and continuity define the style of the performance. The theme and variations that conclude the work captured the audience’s imagination, and all paid rapt attention. Ax at times stretched bar lines, almost giving a sense of rubato to some sections, and this added to the remarkable interplay among the three performers.

The virtuosic approach used by the trio in the final work, the ‘Ghost’, was persuasive. If the first movement was slightly faster than some groups take it, the tempos were effective in conveying the structure. This set up the contrast in the second, which had a certain languid quality that set it apart. Here the ideas Beethoven had for the setting of Shakespeare’s Macbeth are at the core of an atmospheric slow movement, and the sense of tone and timbre heightened the interpretation of this familiar piece. The final Presto was deft and assured, with the joyful and confident mood associated with it evident in the facial expressions and body language of the exceptional trio behind this evening of outstanding chamber music. It was one of the most memorable recent performances at Symphony Center and, perhaps, in the city itself.

James L. Zychowicz

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