Beethoven Makeover: 1st Symphony Keeps Its Panache As Piano Trio

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Violinist Leonidas Kavakos, pianist Emanuel Ax, and cellist Yo-Yo Ma performed works by Beethoven, including an arrangement of the First Symphony, at Orchestra Hall in Chicago. (Photos by Todd Rosenberg Photography)

CHICAGO — Over the last couple of years, the all-star ensemble of pianist Emanuel Ax, violinist Leonidas Kavakos, and cellist Yo-Yo Ma has been performing and recording what they call “Beethoven for Three” — albeit not strictly piano trios as Beethoven composed them. They do play those conventional works, but the really intriguing part of the programs they’re committing to discs are jeux-de-trois reductions of the symphonies.

The threesome initially recorded such arrangements of Beethoven’s Second and Fifth Symphonies, then the Sixth (Pastoral), and now they’re touring with the Symphony No. 1, sandwiched in concert between his two actual piano trios of Op. 70. That’s the program they brought to Orchestra Hall on Feb. 3. While the “real” trios were the pleasures one might have expected from three artists who have melded into a genuine chamber ensemble, the First Symphony distillation by Israeli pianist Shai Wosner was a quite unexpected delight — not a grand work recast small but rather a symphony deconstructed and reassembled, its spirit retained in a lithe and agile new form.

This sort of downsizing to salon scale, whether for trio or quartet or piano four-hands, was of course commonplace in Beethoven’s own time, when performances by symphony orchestras were not so readily accessible to the general public. That said, Wosner’s clever — or better, insightful — rethinking of the First Symphony and the sensitive, smartly shaped playing of Ax, Kavakos, and Ma were anything but a quaint throwback. In the revamped music’s brilliance, energy, elegance, and transparency, the young Beethoven’s wit and sheer brashness surged into stunning evidence.

The trio offered ‘intimate music-making in the most refined and expressive sense.’

It’s hard to separate Wosner’s adroit distribution of roles among piano, violin, and cello from the exquisite interplay of the three musicians onstage. As for symphonic issues like dynamics, colors, and balances, the ear quickly adjusted to the familiar scale of a piano trio. Indeed, any conductor would be thrilled to open the First Symphony with so subtle and ethereal a sonority as these three players summoned. Kavakos and Ma matched the weight and buoyancy of their sound in fluent, ever-shifting counterpoise to Ax’s sparkling keyboard voice. 

Here was intimate music-making in the most refined and expressive sense, but it was also high-spirited and, where needed, aggressive — as in the third-movement Menuetto, not yet a full-blown scherzo though marked Allegro molto e vivace. Lusty playing worthy of the opening gambit by a composer in his late twenties who exuded confidence and was hellbent to set the world — Vienna, anyway — on its ear. 

Lusty yet wonderfully droll. Beethoven, who studied briefly with Haydn but proved to be too headstrong for that pairing to work, nonetheless learned much from the older composer’s example, not least the applications of wit. The finale of the First Symphony begins with a sort of tossing around of tentative phrases — ventured interjections — before the music fully erupts. The moment was not lost on Ax, Kavakos, and Ma, whose almost quixotic little jabs of sound, offered with a bit of mugging to boot, drew laughter from a packed house that clearly was paying attention. 

The threesome opened its concert with the Piano Trio in D, Op. 70, No. 1, known as The Ghost, and finished with its companion in E-flat.  The D major Trio takes its soubriquet from its shadowy middle movement, music Beethoven originally intended for a witches scene in an abandoned project to write an opera on Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The episode’s dark, roiling textures drew concentrated but also crucially ephemeral playing from the solidly knit strings and piano.

The happy trio of Kavakos, Ax, and Ma take bows.

Framing this ghostly midsection, music reminiscent of the scherzo of the Fifth Symphony or perhaps the slow movement of the Fourth Piano Concerto but otherwise hardly characteristic of Beethoven, are movements very much in his technical mold: concise building blocks elaborated into powerful structures of potent, even heroic bearing. Thus Ax, Kavakos, and Ma fashioned a performance as gripping as it was precise and irrepressible. 

And world’s away from the singular gemütlich spirit that suffused the E-flat Trio of Op. 70. Here Beethoven sets aside his gruffness, his towering aspiration, his intellectual fire, and dons a velvet robe, kicks back, pours himself a schnapps. It’s his Vienna moment, and the Ax-Kavakos-Ma triumvirate indulged it to the hilt. 

Even after this formidable program, the three musicians answered a roaring ovation with a substantive encore — “not by Beethoven,” as Ma assured the crowd. It was the slow movement of Schubert’s Piano Trio in B-flat: expansive, reflective, luxurious.