Uncommon grace from Ax, Stern, Ma trio

It was a highly charged evening of musicmaking where three virtuosos, each fully capable of dazzling an audience as soloist, chose instead to collaborate on a triad of trios. The result was a program richer in excitement, feeling, and skill than chamber music often supplies. Pianist Emanuel Ax, violinist Isaac Stern, and cellist Yo-Yo Ma played works by Beethoven, Schubert, and Shostakovich here in Boston Friday in a Wang Celebrity Series stop on a current US/Asian tour that takes them on to Washington and New York.

Their confident performance of Beethoven's impassioned, brooding 1808 Trio in D Major (Op. 70, No. 1) disguised the sheer labor expended to meet its technical demands and capture its mercurial changes of mood. Ax's powerful but fluid keyboard work formed the backbone for a reading whose unity of tempos, intensity, and inflections never came unstuck, from the brisk, breathless opening through the give-and-take of three inventive, mold-shattering movements. If these players had to prove their virtuosity, what better way?

Schubert's elegant and (by contrast) restrained 1827 Trio in E Flat (Op. 100, D. 929) allowed for some unadorned solo work, with Ma spinning out a folk-song melody in smoky, silken tones, echoed soon by piano, and then embroidered by violin. Ma, at 32 the junior partner, seemed exceptionally attentive, focusing his gaze on Stern and leaning expectantly into each bow stroke, as if to play off every nuance his partners could offer. Stern was ever the competent journeyman, rising slightly from his chair for accents and producing sumptuous sounds throughout. Ax exhibited crystalline pianissimos, thunderous fortes, arpeggios that rolled with machinelike articulation, and not a whit of affectation.

The affecting performance of Shostakovich's somber 1944 Trio No. 2 in E Minor (Op. 67), written as an epitaph for a close friend, telegraphed a dire sense of loss mingled at times with cynical and sardonic hints at the indignities Soviet artists endured under Stalin and the horrors the Jews suffered under Hitler. The plaintive recurring Yiddish violin melodies showed the depth of Stern's heartfelt and communicative artistry.

Though one might quibble over minor points of intention or execution, this was unmistakably a concert of uncommon grace.

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