Most touring piano trios are full-time ensembles, like the legendary Beaux Arts, which traversed the world from 1955 through 2008, with founding pianist Menahem Pressler anchoring it all along the way.
But instrumental soloists like to join in the fun as well. Some travel for a few weeks a year with two other favorite colleagues, or sometimes they just team up for a one-off tour. Whatever the case, the goal is the same: an opportunity to collaborate and perform some of the most stirring music in the chamber-music catalog.
Two of these soloist-driven piano trios will be featured this season and next under the auspices of the Symphony Center Presents Chamber Music Series. Famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma will join pianist Emanuel Ax and violinist Leonidas Kavakos in an all-Beethoven program March 2. Next season, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, violinist Lisa Batiashvili and cellist Gautier Capuçon will present trios by Shostakovich, Mendelssohn and Ravel on Dec. 13.
Ax, Kavakos and Ma made their trio debut in 2014 at the Tanglewood Music Festival in Lenox, Mass., and toured for the first time in 2018, including a stop at Orchestra Hall. “I consider this collaboration one of life’s greatest gifts to me, not least because they are not only great artists but they are equally great human beings, both of them,” Kavakos said. “When the three first sat down together, there was an immediate chemistry. It came so naturally, and the match was so good that we all were in awe,” he said.
Other such piano trios include one with violinist Christian Tetzlaff and pianist Lars Vogt (two noted soloists who appeared in a recital together at Orchestra Hall in October), and Tetzlaff’s sister, Tanja, a cellist. For about two decades, this threesome has performed together, presenting 10-20 concerts a year.
“There is repertoire, of course, for the string quartet, which can be compared to nothing else on the planet,” Christian Tetzlaff said. “But for the piano trio, there is much more than I ever knew would totally interest me. Especially the three Schumann piano trios, which are among his most amazing creations. Also, from Brahms, the C major and C minor trios, in comparison to the B major trio, are not played often, and for us those strangely wonderful pieces are what we really die for to play.”
Because piano trios combine three different instruments, there are different issues of balance and players can take a more soloistic approach to their playing. “So it’s a different dynamic,” Tetzlaff said.
Kavakos agrees and believes string soloists gravitate to piano trios because string quartets present challenges in terms of achieving a homogeneous sound and proper intonation. “When you have a piano, the intonation is more or less fixed in the sense that the piano is pre-tuned, and you adjust to that,” he said. “There is no discussion to be made. If you have a string quartet, you have to find all the notes in the intonation in such a way that it works for everybody and that makes it very difficult.”
And if all that wasn’t enough, the repertoire for string quartet can be more challenging. “What is harder than the late Beethoven string quartets?” Kavakos said. “I don’t really know anything that is harder than that.”
Batiashvili agreed, saying in a Sounds and Stories interview in 2019 that it’s almost impossible for musicians who are typically soloists to come together with little rehearsal and create the kind of nuanced blend that a string quartet or string trio requires. “In a piano trio, it’s different,” she said, “because you have piano, violin and cello, which accompany each other but can still stay very personal and have their own voice.”
She, Capuçon and Thibaudet first performed together in November 2018. They presented an 11-day, 10-city tour across Europe that began in the Konzert Theater in Coesfeld, Germany, and included stops in such premier venues as the Musikverein in Vienna, Concertgebouw in Amsterdam and Philharmonie in Paris. “It was really a fantastic experience,” Batiashvili said. Their stop in December at Orchestra Hall will be part of their first North American tour.
Because he performs in both ensembles, Tetzlaff has a somewhat different take on the differing challenges between the string quartet and piano trio. He has led a quartet that performs on an irregular basis each year, and the players have been able to make to it work because the lineup has stayed the same for nearly 30 years and they are all good friends. “I think for many quartets who do that professionally and rehearse a lot and play lots of concerts, that is actually really, really hard,” he said. “And for us, it’s two weeks in a year when we are really eager to get together and perform the most amazing things. I think it is easier this way to be a quartet.”
TOP: Leonidas Kavakos (from left), Emanuel Ax and Yo-Yo Ma take a bow after their 2018 recital at Symphony Center. | ©Todd Rosenberg Photography