Music mastery on rich display at Tanglewood with Ma, Ax, Kavakos and Brahms

Emanuel Ax, Leonidas Kavakos
The Berkshire Eagle

By Andrew L. Pincus

LENOX -- The thunderstorm passed, the skies cleared, the parking lots filled, the lawn filled, Ozawa Hall filled, and still the crowds kept coming. Yo-Yo Ma was playing.

And Emanuel Ax. And Leonidas Kavakos. And they were playing Brahms. And playing the music with heartbreaking beauty and consummate mastery.

Even with the temperatures dropping into the low 50s, the annual Yo-Yo Ma show at Tanglewood has probably never made Ozawa Hall and its lawn bulge with more bodies than it did Thursday night. Amid the traffic jams, concert delays and long lines at the toilets, the paradox was that much of this music speaks of isolation, loneliness and introspection.

It’s a strange world we live in.

Happily, the three musicians didn’t let the enthusiasms of the crowd distract them from probing the passionate, lonely heart of Brahms. They bowed, smiled, waved, laughed at an infant’s scream, and got on with the job.

The program was an equal-opportunity one. Kavakos, the Greek violinist who has enjoyed a close association with the Boston Symphony in Boston, played the Violin Sonata No. 1 with Ax at the piano. The Cello Sonata No. 2 joined Ma with his longtime partner and friend, Ax. The three superbly matched musicians concluded the program with the Trio No. 1, Opus 8. In all three works, Ax played a small 7-foot piano, more closely dovetailing the keyboard part with the strings.

In a way, the trio was the long, chilly evening’s signature piece. It is an early work that Brahms revised late in life, leaving the youthful passions intact but leavening them with the older composer’s heightened sense of proportion and balance.

The performance beautifully realized both sides of the music. The players fed off each other’s moves, creating an air of spontaneity amid sure-handed control. One moment led subtly but inescapably to the next. The adagio, performed with infinite freedom within this framework, came off as a long sigh, a long song of love.

So it went with the sonatas. Kavakos and Ax brought a gentle melancholy to the violin sonata, with its quotations from Brahms’ wistful "Regenlied" ("Rain Song") and its evocation of lost childhood. Kavakos’ full, dusky tone especially suited this dusky music.

Ma and Ax, who have played the cello sonata together many times before, looked behind its heroic gestures to find the ruminative core, though Ma’s lustrous tone occasionally thinned out in the softer passages The adagio, with its alternating bowed and pizzicato passages, arose from deep lyrical springs.

There was an encore, a long one: the andante from Brahms’ Trio No. 2, Opus 87. At 10:30, in the chill, after so much that had gone before, it seemed needlessly generous -- an anticlimax, in fact. But generosity of spirit was in the nature of these musicians on this strange, wonderful evening.