Ax, Kavakos and Ma roar back with Beethoven

Leonidas Kavakos (from left), Emanuel Ax and Yo-Yo Ma take a bow at their SCP Chamber Music concert in 2020.

Todd Rosenberg Photography

Cellist Yo-Yo Ma and pianist Emanuel Ax have been performing together for 50 years — theirs is easily one of the longest and most distinguished collaborations in classical-music history. “It’s a very special part of my life, I have to say,” Ax said.

In recent years, they've added a third collaborator: violinist Leonidas Kavakos. The three first performed together a decade ago at the Tanglewood Music Festival in Lenox, Mass. After additional concerts together, they released a recording of the three piano trios by Johannes Brahms in 2017 on Sony Classical. In 2018, the three musicians embarked on their first tour together: a nine-concert itinerary with stops at Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and Carnegie Hall in New York City.

Ax and Ma hadn’t worked with a violinist since celebrated violinist Isaac Stern died in 2001. The three friends and collaborators made many recordings together, including a well-regarded 1988 release featuring Shostakovich’s piano trios.

Ax and Kavakos have known each other since the 1990s, when they met and later performed some recitals together. The pianist then suggested to Ma that they team with Kavakos. “I thought they would really hit off,” Ax said of the two string players. “I think they really did hit it off in about a half hour. So the whole project won as for me was one big thrill.”

Just in time for an upcoming tour, which stops March 11 at Symphony Center, the trio will release its latest disc, “Beethoven for Three: Symphonies Nos. 2 & 5,” on March 4 via Sony Classical. The disc presents two Beethoven symphonies in chamber arrangements that maintain the power and immediacy of the composer's orchestral works.

Ax, Kavakos, and Ma seek out the most essential elements of Beethoven by pairing his Second Symphony, arranged for trio by the composer’s pupil Ferdinand Ries, with his Fifth — among the most recognizable pieces in Western classical music — in a newly commissioned arrangement by Colin Matthews.

“The idea of actually being able to play the beginning of the Fifth Symphony with your hands is just an incredible thrill,” Ax said. "And you learn about his kind of combination of controlled mania with incredible lyricism — and you get so much of that in both the Fifth Symphony and the Second.”