Beethoven for Three: Symphonies Nos. 2 and 5

Beethoven for Three: Symphonies Nos. 2 and 5

At first glance, a recording of Beethoven Symphonies Nos. 2 and 5 arranged for piano trio seems a little unusual—even if they’re performed by the powerhouse trio of violinist Leonidas Kavakos, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and pianist Emanuel Ax. After all, these works were originally scored for the massive forces of a full symphony orchestra. But playing them in chamber form is less unexpected than it might appear. “As soon as a symphony was written, there would be all these different transcriptions of it for different instruments,” Yo-Yo Ma tells Apple Music. “The paradox,” adds Ax, “is that the orchestra version in Beethoven’s lifetime would have been the unusual event. The usual event would have been those piano four-hands versions, or a trio or quartet arrangement. So, in fact, this chamber version was probably the standard one as opposed to what we’re used to today.”    For this recording, the trio used an existing arrangement of Symphony No. 2 by Beethoven’s pupil Ferdinand Ries. But for the Fifth, they opted to commission an entirely new arrangement from British composer Colin Matthews. Matthews, Ax explains, took inspiration from Liszt’s own piano solo arrangement of Beethoven’s Fifth. “I could certainly tell where he had done that, because those were the parts I couldn’t play!” he laughs. “Beethoven used the orchestra in a more remarkable way than probably any composer ever, but Colin has managed to capture it all so wonderfully well.”   Symphony No. 5 has extraordinary energy and revolutionary zeal, which you’d think might be difficult to replicate with just three players. “The one thing I couldn’t wait for was to explore its intensity and revolutionary spirit, and I never felt that we were downscaling it,” says Kavakos. “In fact, I have to play much more than I would play as a violinist in the orchestra. Because the material is distributed only to three people, we get to play practically every great tune that there is in that piece.” Ax agrees and suggests that these trio arrangements bring even more musical detail to the surface. “One of the things that I think is so great about three of us doing this is the sheer amount of energy that has to happen,” he explains. “It takes a lot of physical effort! But as a result, you get more clarity and percussiveness than you would probably get from an entire string section.”   Ma, Ax, and Kavakos aren’t stopping here, either. As this album was released, they were already rehearsing an arrangement by pianist Shai Wosner of the Pastoral Symphony (Beethoven’s Sixth), in which they’re finding modern resonance. “We’re living in this period of climate change,” says Ma. “It’s going to be both moving and joyful to play a piece of music in which, a couple of hundred years ago, Beethoven was relishing his communion with nature and was expressing it in extraordinary music.”

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