A Lullaby, a Caress: Yo-Yo Ma, Ax and Kavakos on Brahms

Emanuel Ax, Leonidas Kavakos, Yo-Yo Ma
The New York Times

By David Allen

Classical superstars have long come together to form chamber groups, and there is a particularly distinguished tradition of doing that for Brahms’s piano trios. Just scan the internet for Artur Rubinstein, Jascha Heifetz and Emanuel Feuermann, say, or Myra Hess, Isaac Stern and Pablo Casals. Sometimes celebrity players struggle to curb their egos for the intimacy of group work — but when they do, the results can be stunning.

Certainly that’s the case with the pianist Emanuel Ax, the violinist Leonidas Kavakos and the cellist Yo-Yo Ma. On a recent, superb Sony recording of Brahms’s three trios, their individual personalities combine beautifully. During rehearsals for an American tour that includes a visit to Carnegie Hall on Thursday, they chose a favorite page from the works. The group picked the opening bars of the slow movement of the Piano Trio No. 3 in C minor, marked “Andante grazioso.”

It’s a page that is unusually sparse for Brahms, alternating between music for the violin and cello, in duet, and the piano alone. Here are edited excerpts from a conversation that was full of teasing and laughter, three artists clearly enjoying their time with one another.

Manny and Yo-Yo, you have been playing together for a long time. What has it been like to have Leonidas join an old partnership?
YO-YO MA It’s amazing to have a fellow string player. He does something; I see what he’s doing; and there’s some kind of recognition. It’s instantaneous; there’s no explanation for it.
EMANUEL AX When you’re doing music, if you get along personally, if you like each other, that’s 75 percent, or 80 percent, or 90 percent of everything.
LEONIDAS KAVAKOS It’s crucial, it’s absolutely existential.
MA You can’t get work done if there’s no trust, and if there’s no fun — meaning if you can be playful, if you can be vulnerable.

Does that help to bridge the gap between solo and chamber music?
AX I personally don’t think there’s that much difference. I guess for pianists, we’re always doing chamber music, because it’s left hand and right hand. So when you’re playing with a cello, you’re just adding another voice.
When we work on a piece, Yo-Yo will start out and say, “This should be like the sunrise, and that should be like the sunset.” And I start out by asking, “How come on the fourth beat there’s a dot, and there’s no dot on the third beat?” Eventually we come together, and I begin to see the sunrise, and I get him to check the dot.
MA Today he asked Leonidas to do something.
AX The face he made!
MA The thing is, he didn’t make a face! Leonidas, in his very nice way, said, “Well, I don’t quite see it that way.”
AX In other words, “What a schmuck!”

Of all the pages in Brahms’s three trios, why have you chosen this one?
AX We all had a lot of choices. I just thought it was intriguing that this has two meters, and that’s pretty unusual in the 19th century. You get this very lilting feel, but it looks like Stravinsky.
MA Or it feels like folk.
KAVAKOS There’s an asymmetry, but everybody at the end of the phrase feels calm and complete.

So is this typical of Brahms?
AX No, I wouldn’t say characteristic. It’s unusual to have a big section like this that’s completely separate voices.
KAVAKOS Sometimes you have that in the piano quartets.
AX Yes, and something like the D minor concerto has big areas of solo piano. But just the two instruments like this, that’s unusual. Maybe that’s why we picked it, too.
MA It’s so beautiful, and Manny plays it really gorgeously.
AX It’s not me, it’s Brahms.
MA But the way you do it is so organic. I’ve heard it played in a way that sounds awkward, and the way you play it, it’s like a little music box.
KAVAKOS This is like a lullaby. This gesture is like a caress, a little tenderness. It’s not easy, but I think what is amazing is that a composer who can be so complicated can all of a sudden do something like this. So simple — not totally symmetrical, but somehow, in the whole, it leaves you with a smile. And in this piece, which is so dramatic, no?
MA Very compact, right? It’s almost like late Beethoven. There’s no fat in it. Everything is just what it needs to be.
AX It’s also very wistful. T he second movement is unbelievably touching. There was a woman named Ilona Eibenschütz. She was a student of Clara Schumann’s, and when she was a young girl, she met Brahms. He played his last piano pieces for her, and on a 1950s BBC broadcast, she plays just the piano part of the trio’s second movement. I’m trying to copy her all the time, I want to play it just like her.

Read the full interview.