Beethoven: Violin Sonata No. 4 in A Minor, Op. 23
Beethoven: Cello Sonata No. 3 in A Major, Op. 69
Beethoven: Piano Trio in B-flat Major, Op. 97, (Archduke)
The last afternoon of the weekend, especially an extra-long one, is always bittersweet, because it is still officially playtime, but at that point the fun is bound to end sooner than later. Add to that a newly declared state of emergency in the State of New York, the prospect of enjoying Emmanuel Ax, Leonidas Kavakos and Yo-Yo Ma celebrate Beethoven’s 250th birthday one last time together, and the opportunity to honor Carnegie Hall savior Isaac Stern during his annual memorial concert, not to mention his 100th birthday this year, and emotions were running high on Sunday afternoon at Carnegie Hall.
That said, the audience in the Stern Auditorium had clearly decided to indulge in music and not panic, and the space was as jam-packed as for the two previous concerts, including several rows of seats on the stage. Even the beautiful spring weather outside or the unappetizing threat of the coronavirus inside could not have kept any of us from sharing a terrific program by terrific musicians.
Although I was back on the balcony, it looked like the stinky dog curse had been definitely lifted. In fact, this time the unplanned entertainment was a young Asian woman next to me who was in full disinfection mode, from energetically wiping her seat’s armrests to vigorously rubbing her hands (Where on earth had she found Purell these days?!). But the thing is, if I have to put up with a strong smell, it might as well be a clean one.
Unlike the previous two occasions, this one started with Emmanuel Ax and Leonidas Kavakos tackling Beethoven’s Violin Sonata in A Minor, which they of course effortlessly dispatched. Although the piece is well-known for its restless nature and brooding mood, there was still plenty of melodic power to be found in it on Sunday afternoon, making the music totally engrossing even in its roughest patches.
Next, Beethoven’s Cello Sonata A Major put us back on much smoother territory with some stunningly rhapsodic, quietly melancholic lines for the cello, of the type that makes you feel extra-lucky to have a certified virtuoso like Yo-Yo Ma unfold them in front of you. Written in 1808, the same year Beethoven also composed his iconic Fifth and Sixth symphonies, the cello sonata was by default a smaller work, but still managed to make history by giving both instruments equal power of expression.
After intermission, Ax and Ma shared tribute duties to celebrate Isaac Stern not only for his peerless skills as violinist, but also his unwavering commitment to education, philanthropy and Carnegie Hall. What would we do now if he had not been there then?
And then it was back to Beethoven with a magnificent “Archduke” Trio, surely one of his most accomplished and popular creations. And here again, equality ruled, as the violin and the cello enjoy pretty much the same status as the piano, which was in fact a most fortuitous thing for that performance. I mean, what’s the point of having first-rate musicians like Kavakos and Ma if you’re going to have them play, well, second fiddle? Unquestionably noble and beautifully lyrical, of almost symphonic scale but never overbearing, it kept the three musicians unforgivingly busy and the audience totally enthralled. This mini Beethoven celebration could not have ended on a more glorious note.
The encores of the two previous concerts – Schubert on Wednesday and Brahms on Friday – had led me to think that the one on Sunday would not stray far from German Romanticism, if at all, and sure enough, it is with Felix Mendelssohn and the delicately sing-songy Andante con moto tranquillo of his Piano Trio No. 1 that the musical part of our evening ended.
In a repeat of the last concert, when taking their last bows, Kavakos and Ma playfully singled out Ax again, who whole-heartedly protested again, but nevertheless received the rock-star ovation he so unequivocally deserved again. The man had to be the hardest-working musician on a Carnegie Hall stage last week!