These are magnificent performances of Brahms’s three acknowledged Piano Trios which, as far as I am concerned, go straight to the top of the list. The architect of their supremacy is Emanuel Ax, always a superb Brahms pianist, who displays the utmost virtuosity, whether skittering through one of Brahms’s Scherzos, playing pianissimo in one of his slow movements or making one of his grand statements. His distinction can be heard in every phrase he plays: his tone is unfailingly beautiful, everything is always in perfect taste and one could almost be listening to the composer making music with friends.
The string-playing does not exude the same personality, although both Leonidas Kavakos and Yo-Yo Ma have the Brahms style at their fingertips. The violinist is typical of the modern generation in playing cleanly, with excellent tone but without the individual touches that one hears all the time from, say, Vilde Frang. The cellist has never impressed me as a Great Soloist – hence, perhaps, his increasingly desperate and bizarre attempts to generate publicity. He has always been at his best in chamber music: he and Ax have appeared together with such colleagues as Itzhak Perlman, Isaac Stern, Jaime Laredo, Richard Stoltzman and Pamela Frank, as well as in the “Seven-Letter Trio” with Young Uck Kim. Ma and Kavakos play beautifully almost throughout the three Trios and they blend very well, perhaps assisted by using two Strads, the 1734 ‘Willemotte’ violin and the 1712 ‘Davidoff’ cello. What one misses is the occasional unmistakable touch of genius that one gets from an Adolf Busch, a Jascha Heifetz, an Isaac Stern, a Josef Suk, an Emanuel Feuermann, a Janos Starker or a Pierre Fournier, to name some of those who have recorded one or more of the Trios.
Ax and Co begin with the C-major Trio, often regarded as the best of the three, although Clara Schumann had a soft spot for the C-minor.The performance starts with a firmly delineated opening phrase and the Allegro proceeds with an easy but inexorable forward movement, the tempo changes naturally subsumed into the whole. In the Andante con moto, the theme is laid out at exactly the right tempo and there is beautiful playing in the bittersweet variations, with a definite pulse connecting them. The Scherzo has fine rhythm and a lovely Trio. Terrific virtuosity is heard in the Finale, especially from Ax.
A big-boned chord launches the C-minor Trio and Ax is soon in control; the second subject is given a nice yielding character. This is a super performance of the intense first movement. The players, with the strings muted, are delicacy itself in the Presto non assai, which Clara Schumann loved so much, and their rhythm is very subtle in its Trio: Donald Tovey’s assertion that this pseudo-Scherzo “hurries by like a frightened child” rather leaves its elusive charm out of the equation. The three men let the music lilt invitingly in the Andante grazioso, characterised by Daniel Gregory Mason as having “a cheerful folk-song mood”. Both inner movements are quiet and quite withdrawn, as intended by Brahms, and take four minutes apiece. Their mood is dispelled by the final chords of the Andante and the ensuing Allegro molto, handsomely played with a firm tread from the start and some very enjoyable interplay.
In a very companionable booklet note, Ax refers to “both of Brahms’s piano trios” being very important in his life, which implies that he has played the B-major rather less than the others. There is no sign of this lack of knowledge in the way he leads off the opening movement, and Ma plays the first theme very well – in the original version of this Trio, Brahms bowed to Joachim and allowed the violin some wispy interventions in this theme, but in the revision played here, the cello has it to itself. The players thoroughly justify the repeat of the exposition, which bumps the movement out to nearly fifteen minutes, when Ma plays the first idea much more quietly than before – a lovely effect – and they make quite an epic of it. Their rhythm is excellent in the Scherzo, but Kavakos’s E-string tone is rather squeaky; and although Ma plays his solo in the Adagio quite well, I doubt if it will linger in the mind, as it does in the hands of the cellists mentioned above. The quiet outer sections of this movement are finely done, especially by Ax, and there is a nice lift to the rhythm in the Finale, where Kavakos is again a tad screechy.
The recordings, engineered by Richard King and produced by Steven Epstein, are close but not claustrophobically so, and the playing can stand the scrutiny. The sound of Ax’s Steinway is beautifully captured. No dates are given but I presume “℗ & © 2017” means that the sessions took place sometime last year. It is a shame to leave acres of empty space on Disc One, when various apt fillers might have been recorded: perhaps not the A-major Trio sometimes attributed to Brahms, but possibly something by Herzogenberg or Reinecke.
Although Ax asserts that Brahms’s Piano Trios have been “played and recorded magnificently countless times”, hidtory rather contradicts him. Cortot, Thibaud and Casals played Opus 101 just once; and the other great trio of last century, Gilels, Kogan and Rostropovich, never got round to Brahms, although Gilels and Kogan recorded a superb Horn Trio with Yakov Shapiro. It was a similar story with Oborin, Oistrakh and Knushevitsky, indeed the only Russian group to have recorded all the Brahms works is the ghastly Borodin Trio, definitely not recommended. The splendid Moscow Trio did the C-major and C-minor; and the marvellous young Brahms Trio of Moscow have done the C-minor and B-major. That sensitive polyglot group, Maria João Pires, Augustin Dumay and Jian Wang, recorded the first two Trios for Deutsche Grammophon. Back in 78rpm days, one could find the same two works by the Trio Santoliquido; Opus 101 by the Trio di Trieste; Opus 87 by Myra Hess, Jelly d’Arányi (past her best) and Gaspar Cassadó; a very fine Opus 87 by the Trio Italiano (Alfredo Casella, Alberto Poltronieri and Arturo Bonucci); another fine Opus 87 by the Belgian Court Trio; Opus 8 by the Elly Ney Trio; and a famous Opus 8 by Arthur Rubinstein, Jascha Heifetz and Emanuel Feuermann. The Busch Trio, who played 87 and 101 often, Opus 8 more rarely, set down the C-major at Adolf Busch’s very last sessions, although for lack of a coupling the recording was not released for many years – it has had a number of CD reissues, most recently in the big Rudolf Serkin box (Sony). In LP days the Trio di Trieste did the first two Trios for Decca, playing by heart as the musicians had on their HMV 101.
The complete sets that have stayed the course in my collection are those by the later line-up of the Trio di Trieste (DG); Julius Katchen, Josef Suk and Janos Starker (Decca); Rubinstein, Henryk Szeryng and Pierre Fournier (RCA); Eugene Istomin, Isaac Stern and Leonard Rose (Sony); and a most interesting box by the Odeon Trio (Leonard Hokanson, Kurt Guntner and Angelica May) including also the early version of Opus 8 and the viola versions of the Horn and Clarinet Trios with Rainer Moog (Capriccio). There are several excellent digital sets in the catalogue but none, I think, to compare with this overwhelming, almost irreproachable one from Ax, Kavakos and Ma.