Beethoven's gentler side at Tanglewood

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LENOX — "The still, sad music of humanity," Wordsworth called it. There it was, in the adagio movement of Beethoven's Violin Sonata No. 6 (Opus 30, No. 1) as played by violinist Leonidas Kavakos and pianist Emanuel Ax in their all-Beethoven recital at Tanglewood.

Actually, it was present in the exquisite shaping of all three sonatas on the program. What made it so special in this adagio is that the sixth sonata is sort of a stepchild among the 10 violin-piano sonatas, and here came this rarely encountered aria, song, meditation — what do you call it? — full of mingled sorrow and joy like a gift from heaven.

The Tuesday night program was the last half of a Beethoven exploration that Kavakos and Ax began a week earlier with cellist Yo-Yo Ma in a program of three trios. Anyone who had been at the trio program knew what to expect in the sonatas: musicianship of the highest order.

Some people shout. In the fourth and tenth sonatas (Opus 23 and Opus 96) as well as the sixth, Kavakos and Ax kept everything down to a gentle conversation. There was fire aplenty in Beethoven's outbursts and abrupt changes in his fast movements, but it was fire that cools rather than burns. (Impossible? Listen to performances like these.)

Kavakos' tone was silken, fine-spun. Ax was a perfect gentleman and partner, lending filigree in the adagio of No. 6 and leading and supporting all through the evening in the interplay between instruments. There was constant suspense in the subtle tension between fast and slow, brusque and lyrical. The pacing, marked by finely calibrated contrasts and pauses, kept you expectant for what would come next.

Beethoven came next, small-scaled in the two early sonatas, broader in vision in the mature tenth, the last of the set. That final sonata came from Beethoven's heroic period (the "Eroica" Symphony, for example) but the performance went for beauty and inner life rather than Napoleonic dreams.

There was joy unbounded in the tricks Beethoven plays in the tenth's finale, a surprising theme and variations. As Jan Swafford put it in his always instructive program notes, the effect of the finale is less the standard form "than a stream of consciousness." The sounds came from "the inner world of an aging and ill composer who could no longer hear anything but what sang in his head, but who well remembered the sounds of nature, and the feelings of exaltation and of love human and divine that he found there."

Can anyone ask for more?                                                                                                                                  Yes, the audience did, and received the adagio from Beethoven's "Spring" Sonata (No. 5, Opus 24) as an encore.

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