Leonidas Kavakos Talks Brahms, Strads, & the Joy of Playing Trios with Manny and Yo-Yo

By Inge Kjemtrup

It was a match made in heaven.

Or rather, it was a match made at the Tanglewood Festival that began when violinist Leonidas Kavakos, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and pianist Emanuel Ax first got together to rehearse a piano trio. Kavakos remembers the occasion well: “From the very first note we played, we had this smile of joy. Somehow it felt like we had played a long, long time together.”

Ax and Ma have most certainly played together a long, long time—their partnership dates back some 45 years. Ax and the 50-year-old Greek violinist have a shorter musical track record together, but can notch up, among other things, a well-received recording of the Beethoven violin and piano sonatas. “I don’t know what happened between the two of them,” says Kavakos, “but at some point I got a phone call saying, ‘Would you like to come? We’re going to be in Tanglewood—shall we play some trios?’” The three presented an all-Brahms chamber-music concert: Kavakos and Ma each played a sonata and Ax joined them for Brahms’ first piano trio.

Kavakos sounds thrilled to be part of this new three-sided relationship, however it came about. “It was very obvious from the very first moment that not only was it incredible fun—which is not difficult with those two guys—but there was also this amazing chemistry in the music and in the way we play,” recalls Kavakos. A few years later, they performed all three Brahms trios at Tanglewood. The idea of a recording was born then and realized this September with a two-disc Sony Classical release.

(Left to right) Yo-Yo Ma, Leonidas Kavakos, and Emanuel Ax. Photo by Hilary Scott

My interview with Kavakos takes place in London in August, the day after his performance of the Brahms violin concerto at the BBC Proms. He’s wearing a yellow short-sleeved button-up shirt and seems relaxed sitting in a high-backed, well-padded chair in a hotel drawing room.

As we talk, I soon discover that he is a bit of an instrument nerd. He enjoys talking about instruments and makers, and it seems that dealers and collectors are happy to show him the cream of the crop.


Kavakos has had the good fortune to play on some great violins. Before the 1734 “Willemotte” Stradivari that is his current instrument, he’d played on the 1692 “Falmouth” Strad, and then the 1724 “Abergavenny” Strad. You’re going through Strads chronologically, I suggest. “Well, there’s not much later,” Kavakos laughs (he’s right; Stradivari died in 1737).

The Willemotte was in private ownership when Kavakos saw it for the first time at a Guarneri del Gesù exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. He was asked to play a few notes on it and was overwhelmed: “You know the feeling when you’re getting an instrument and it’s like you’re flying in the sky, because it’s just all [your] dreams come true with the sound!” But the violin wasn’t for sale. “So I gave it back, and said to myself, hopefully one day in my life, I will be able to find it somewhere,” he says. That day came last year when he acquired the instrument via the London-based dealer Florian Leonhard.

Stradivari was helped in his instrument making by his sons, but the Willemotte was one that the great Cremonese maker produced himself. “He’s focusing much more on the sound and he’s experimenting with the arching, which is impressive,” says Kavakos. “[H]e’s trying to create as much room as possible for the box without making it any bigger than it already is, because it’s a big model. He’s looking for more space for sound production and color, and depth of sound.”

Kavakos is elated by the new Strad in his life. “It’s amazing—immediately you want to re-play everything you’ve ever played in your life, just because you hear things that you never heard before.”

When it comes to bows, he doesn’t have a single allegiance, preferring to match the bow to the repertoire. “Of course,” he explains, “the bows are just as personal as the violins are.” He’d played the Brahms concerto the previous evening using a Simon bow. He feels strongly that bows made after 1830 draw a more Romantic sound than bows from earlier eras. “If I play with a bow that is after 1840 in Beethoven or Schubert, I will be happy, of course, but if I go to a bow that is made before the 1830s, I will be a little more happy. I will be guided to the sound concept that I want to create.”

Kavakos is quick to reassure me that despite his joy with the Strad, it wasn’t the only thing he was thinking about at the Brahms recording session. “With chamber music you have to create an aura with your colleagues. There is a certain kind of unanimous element [and] if it’s missing, it’s not doing justice to the music. You have to feel that the most important thing is not you and your instrument at that point, but what is actually being formed while you are playing with these two people. You are three people, three souls, three minds, three hearts, six hands, and eventually, they all have to sound like one—or they have to try to. That becomes the huge priority above anything else.”


“You are three people, three souls, three minds, three hearts, six hands, and eventually, they all have to sound like one.”

—Leonidas Kavakos

Brahms’ first piano trio, Op. 8 in B major, was written when the composer was 20 years old. He revised the work 35 years later, changing it enough that he even considered renumbering it as Op. 108. So it is his first, and also his last trio. (The revised version appears on the new disc.)

“What I love about it is that it’s in the most unusual key,” Kavakos says. B major is not a very friendly key for string players, I comment. “Not at all, but B major is a key that has this majestic sound. It’s all in D for violin: most concertos are in D major, D minor. B major is a very special key and we have very little music written in that key, and that creates an amazing effect. I feel it is the grandest of the trios.”

We turn to the second trio, Op. 87 in C major, and again Kavakos finds the key is, well, the key to the piece. “For me the C major is the tonality of depth. C major sounds for me always very dark. Even the last movement, which is very giocoso, still has a certain kind of special weight to it. One of the most beautiful movements in the trio is the second movement, which refers to Central-European folk music, with all the Hungarian elements . . . Brahms was not the first to do that, of course, but he gave another dimension to it, because through the Romanticism of the music, it gets an enormous weight.”

The third trio, Op. 101 in C minor, was composed in 1886, just a few years after the second trio. “The first movement is dramatic, unbelievably dark and heavy and pronounced,” says Kavakos. “You have the contrast with these two middle movements, which are jewels of different character. One is very melancholic, and the other very laidback and relaxed, giving you the feeling of a flower opening in fast motion.”


For the North American tour in February, Kavakos, Ma, and Ax will be playing all three trios in reverse order. Kavakos explains that “for the live-concert experience, it works better. You have a strong opening with the
C minor. It’s like an explosion onstage. After that drama, the C major almost sounds like a relief in the way. And then after that, and the break, one is really ready to hear that beginning of the B major, which is a moment of joy.” There’s also the fact that the B major is the longest trio, and that balances the program. The first (which is really the last) shall be last.

Our conversation seems to be ending when I ask him for the inside story on why the concert started late last night. Kavakos’ laidback demeanor vanishes and he gets agitated as he tells me what transpired. The orchestra, the Filarmonica della Scala, was delayed for over two hours because of late unloading of luggage and instruments at the airport. By the time the orchestra, conductor Riccardo Chailly, and soloist arrived at the Royal Albert Hall, it was too late for a proper rehearsal, and they were given a very short warm-up.

Worse, they were told no encores, because of the timing of the live broadcast. When Kavakos finished his Brahms concerto, it was clear the Proms audience would have loved an encore. Or two. So that was a silver lining, and there was another, Kavakos says, which involves the Willemotte: “I have to say that it was the first time I felt so good with this violin.”

Another match made in heaven, or in this case, London.