Brahms: Piano Trio No. 2 in C Major, Op. 87
Brahms: Piano Trio No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 101
Brahms: Piano Trio No. 1 in B Major, Op. 8
Every year, on February 22, I receive a “Bonne fête !” card, which used to land in my mailbox and nowadays pops up in my inbox, from my mom. Like Proust and his madeleine, it never fails to fast-track me back to my childhood. Even if my upbringing took place in staunchly secular France, stubborn religious-turned-cultural traditions, such as the Gregorian Calendar of Saints, just won’t die. Since I am associated by name to Sainte Isabelle, the medieval princess and Franciscan Clarist member that is celebrated on that day, I get to feel special for a few minutes, and then return to my kingdom- and devotion-free routine. As far as I can remember, not much has ever happened in my life on my Name Day.
This year, however, was radically different as stars miraculously aligned (allegedly) in the sky and (literally) on the stage of Carnegie Hall’s Stern Auditorium when no less than pianist Emanuel Ax, violinist Leonidas Kavakos and cellist Yo-Yo Ma got together to perform three canonical piano trios by, of all composers, my beloved Johannes Brahms.
The sold-out concert was actually such a big deal that the make-shift seating areas on the stage were as jam-packed with excited concert-goers as the official seating areas. Life could not get better than that, and for that one enchanted evening of February 22, 2018 ̶ never mind the gray, cold, wet and generally miserable world outside ̶ it did not.
Brahms was almost fifty and at the top of his game when he completed the C Major Trio in 1882, three decades after his first one, but the finely crafted, subtly dark, and wonderfully compelling work was definitely worth-waiting for. As performed by the ego-free virtuosic trio formed by decades-long buddies Ax and Ma and seamlessly integrated newcomer Kavakos on Thursday night, it even reached impressive symphonic dimensions. Cello and violin joined forces in the assertive introduction, but the piano quickly jumped in and imposed itself as a commanding presence for the remaining of the piece, so commanding, in fact, that it often took the combined strings’ power to vigorously counter it. The mournful andante and its Gypsy-style melody sharply contrasted with the restless scherzo and its radiant soaring lines, before Brahms had the musicians turn things down a notch for the comparatively lighter finale.
Keeping his prodigious momentum going, a few years later Brahms completed the C Minor Trio , which is routinely considered not only one of his most superlative achievements, but also one of the crown jewels of the chamber music repertoire. Still in four movements, the C Minor is a relatively short, densely compact and rigorously structured composition, although heart-felt emotions are never too far underneath the surface because once a Romantic, always a Romantic. Listening and responding to one another in perfect unison, the three musicians not only expertly conveyed the ever-present intensity of the piece, but also took the time to let the exquisitely delicate musings and glorious flights of lyricism rightfully emerge and thrive. Rarely has so much dazzling artistry been so efficiently packed in a mere 21 minutes.
After intermission, we moved on to the B Major Trio, which is titled Piano Trio No. 1 because Brahms composed it in 1853 when he was a 20-year old youngster. Being the incurable perfectionist that he was, he eventually deemed it unworthy of his later output, and consequently rewrote large portions of it three decades later. During the riveting performance of the highly melodic score, the first unmissable element was for sure the jaw-droppingly gorgeous cello solo that came right after the piano introduction and would lead to the rest of the extensively revised allegro. Then the scherzo exploded with exuberance before ending quietly while the adagio exuded undisturbed serenity and a little eeriness. The expansive finale unfolded magnificently as if composer and musicians had thrown into it everything they had and more, and concluded on a positively turbulent note.
A long and resounding ovation let the trio know that the concert had been an immensely enjoyable experience, and also that we were not ready to let them go just yet. So they eventually came back for Schubert’s gently lilting andante from his B-flat Major Trio, a lovely lullaby that became the perfect parting gift, since parting we reluctantly had to.