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American History, Op. 8

New York
Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
02/22/2018 -  & February 21 (Boston), 25 (Chicago), March 1 (Stanford), 3 (San Diego), 4 (Los Angeles) 2018
Johannes Brahms: Piano Trios No. 2 in C major, Op. 87, No. 3 in C minor, Op. 101, & No. 1 in B major, Op. 8
Emanuel Ax (piano), Leonidas Kavakos (violin), Yo-Yo Ma (cello)

Y.-Y. Ma (© Jason Bell)

“Leaning out of those windows at dawn or by moonlight, I could better understand the pure, crisp, exuberant loveliness of the Thun sonatas and trio. The freshness and magic of all Switzerland distill from them.”
Robert Haven Schauffler, The Unknown Brahms

“Brahms so beautiful it makes me suicidal.”
William Boyd, Any Human Heart

Although there is considerable debate as to which piece of music premiered in America is the best (I vote for Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, premiered in Baltimore with the composer at the piano), there is little doubt that the first great piece of music was the first version of the First Trio of Johannes Brahms, introduced to the world right here in Manhattan in a now defunct recital hall in what is now Chinatown and featuring the soon-to-be famous conductor Theodore Thomas as cellist.

That version is subject to debate today as to authenticity of content, but it is fascinating to read that Brahms himself called his reworking of the piece into its present form “das verböserte Trio” (the “made worse” trio). In any case, this Brahmsian reconstruction anchored an all-star performance on Thursday evening of the trio of trios that stand as pillars in the construction of this composer’s rock-solid body of chamber masterpieces.

Saving the First for last, this all-star group began with the C major “middle” trio. To set the scene, the house was completely sold out and about two hundred people were seated on the stage. Except they were all huddled into a grouping behind the players stage right or, as the bulk of them would no doubt later complain when they arrived home to tell their loved ones about the experience, they were seated behind the piano, whose cover was of course up and therefore most of these paying patrons had only an aural representation of this concert. As for the playing, it was just a little understated, as if the trio was against displaying the underlying savagery of the piece. More bass line in the Presto movement was devoutly to be wished.

The quotation above from Robert Haven Schauffler evocatively conjures the magic of the Third Trio. Here there emerged a bit of a controversy. These three fine players were seeming to hide their treasure under a bushel. There was nothing tangible or definite to support this conclusion, however the listener had to fill in some of the emotional blanks in this performance. The resulting music-making was clean and crisp but a bit professorial and missing the heart of the emotional matter. Here were three superb musicians who did not seem to blend enough to produce a performance of the highest quality. One interesting performance decision – a wise one, I believe – there was no pause between the Andante grazioso and the final Allegro molto, a fine effect.

Finally the First Trio – transformed by the composer at a much later time – is arguably the most powerful of the trio of trios hereby examined. It is certainly the roughest, the most atavistic, even after painstaking alterations. There were 35 productive years between the publication of this piece and its revision by the composer. Although there is no truth to the rumor that I grew up in the neighborhood where this trio was first performed – although several of my Yiddish theatre ancestors did indeed inhabit this lower East side enclave – it is undeniable that there is indeed the feel of the shtetl in this music (compare early Mahler) and this trio captured it brilliantly. The first movement especially was akin to those old native rhythms and harmonies and was the jewel in tonight’s crown. Mr. Ma’s cello tone was, beyond question, superbly evocative. Masterworks performed by masters – what else, as the denizens of Orchard Street might have said, do you want, egg in your beer?

Fred Kirshnit



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