Review: Piano Trios Highlight Beethoven 250 at Symphony Center

Emanuel Ax, Leonidas Kavakos, and Yo-Yo Ma take well earned ovations. Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

The Beethoven 250 celebrations shifted to Symphony Center Monday night where Emanual Ax, Leonidas Kavakos, and Yo-Yo Ma put the more genteel side of Ludwig van Beethoven on display. Much attention is paid to the dramatic and passionate music of this revolutionary composer, but he also wrote many outstanding mellower works of astonishing beauty and aural subtlety. His Piano trios have some of the former, but more of the latter.

Beethoven began his composing and performing career in Vienna in the early 1790s, and three piano trios were his first published works as Opus 1. At this time the piano trio was just coming into its own. Previously, most piano trios had been piano pieces with a violin and cello merely playing along. Following Mozart’s lead, however, Beethoven gave the violin and cello far greater independence in his trios, putting them on par with the piano. It gave the form a lot more vibrancy and expressive capability.

Writing these first trios with his former teacher Franz Josef Haydn in mind (whose own excellent trios had somewhat freed the violin but still kept the cello following the piano bass line), Beethoven largely sticks to the classical forms Haydn had perfected, although Beethoven applied the four-movement grand sonata style, while Haydn’s trios general had three movements only. Of the Opus 1 set, No. 3 in c-minor gives the largest hints of what would soon come from Beethoven’s quill. In addition to being in a key that Beethoven turned to time and again to express deep emotions and intensity, the rapid Prestimisso finale comes pretty close to the passion that would quickly become a fixture in his music.

Emanuel Ax, Leonidas Kavakos, and Yo-Yo Ma entertained on Monday night. Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

Monday’s performance was lovely, with the precise interplay between Ax, Kavakos, and Ma excellently exhibiting the form’s expanded potential. They gave it the feel of three instruments conversing with one another, while carefully preserving the balance between them. This came out most forcefully in the second movement, a slower set of variations in the more upbeat Andante cantabile, when Ax, Kavakos, and Ma fully used the opportunities to stand out. Ax showed great dexterity in the third movement Menuetto: Quasi allegro with glissando rills that blended in perfectly with the melodic line.

The second trio on the program, in E-flat major, Op. 70 No. 2, is one of Beethoven’s more lyrical middle period works. Unlike other works of that era, it closely follows the format used in Op. 1 No. 3. Instead of a passionate slow movement, Beethoven returned to a more up-tempo set of Allegretto variations using themes reminiscent of a stroll in the park. For the third movement, instead of a frisky and rapid Scherzo, he used the slower minuet dance movement, which, by this time in his career, Beethoven had largely abandoned.

Emanuel Ax, Leonidas Kavakos, and Yo-Yo Ma showed the more genteel side of Beethoven. Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

For performers to pull this off, contrast needs to be provided by energetic performances of the outer movements. On Monday night, the finale certainly was, but the opening movement was not. Ma, Kavakos, and Ax used a more languid tempo that would ordinarily allow the melodies to sink in better. But this was hindered by the loss of balance between Kavakos and Ma that had been firmly established earlier in the evening. While Ma could have toned things down a bit, the biggest problem seemed to be Kavakos, whose soft violin playing sometimes got buried in the mix. The ensemble interaction also got a bit choppy and clumsy at times. That said, it was still a very good performance with many brilliant passages, but it was lacking in important ways.

After intermission, the ensemble turned to Beethoven’s most mannerly work, the Archduke Piano Trio in B-flat major, Op. 97. This 45-minute piece, set in symphonic proportions, demonstrates more than any other the delicacy, intimacy, and melodic warmth that this intense and passionate composer could turn to on a moment’s notice.

Emanuel Ax. Leonidas Kavakos, and Yo-Yo Ma, as seen from the balcony. Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

Although balance issues still persisted, Ax, Kavakos, and Ma captured the feelings well, starting with Ax’s thoughtful and charming run through the opening piano passage. Ma answered with an equally thoughtful run on the cello, as did Kavakos on the violin. They also marvelously exhibited the contrasts Beethoven wove into the second movement Scherzo; they gave the rondo finale a ribald, jocular rendition. But it was a moving performance of the variations of the Andante third movement that most affected me. (To read how and why, click here.) Ax, Kavakos, and Ma made the beautiful theme sing in the opening, and provided nice interplay in the variations that followed.

As an encore, the Ax, Kavakos, and Ma offered the lovely Adagio movement from the Gasenhaus Trio in B-flat major, Op. 11, the only time all evening this slow tempo was performed. This work is more often heard with a clarinet, but Beethoven scored it for either clarinet or violin, so we got the violin version Monday night.

Symphony Center has been commemorating this composer’s 250th birthday with orchestral and concerto performances by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and various artists, and solo piano recitals by a who’s who of celebrated pianists working their way through all 32 piano sonatas. Up next is Andras Schiff performing over two recitals nine piano sonatas, including the famous Moonlight sonata. On Sunday, March 29, he will be performing Sonata No. 12 in A-flat-major, Op. 26; Sonata No. 13 in E-flat-major, Op. 27, No. 1 (Quasi una fantasia); Sonata No. 14 in c-sharp minor, Op. 27, No. 2 (Moonlight); and Sonata No. 15 in D-major, Op. 28; (Pastoral), at 3:00 pm. On Tuesday, March 31, he will perform Sonata No. 24 in F-sharp-major, Op. 78; Sonata No. 25 in G-major, Op. 79; Sonata No. 26 in E-flat-major, Op. 81a (Les Adieux); Sonata No. 27 in e-minor, Op. 90; Sonata No. 28 in A-major, and Op. 101, at 8:00 pm. Note that these programs are reversed from what had been publicized in brochures. Click here for more information.

Louis Harris
Louis Harris

A lover of music his whole life, Louis Harris has written extensively from the early days of punk and alternative rock. More recently he has focused on classical music, especially chamber ensembles. He has reviewed concerts, festivals, and recordings and has interviewed composers and performers. He has paid special attention to Chicago’s rich and robust contemporary art music scene. He occasionally writes poetry and has a published novel to his credit, 32 Variations on a Theme by Basil II in the Key of Washington, DC. He now lives on the north side of Chicago, which he considers to be the greatest city in the country, if not the world.

Plan Your Life with 3CR Highlights

Join Our Newsletter today!