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Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax Together Again

available at Amazon
Beethoven, Cello Sonatas / Variations, Yo-Yo Ma, E. Ax
(Sony Classical, 1987)

available at Amazon
Beethoven, Cello Sonatas 3/5, Yo-Yo Ma, E. Ax
(remastered, 2013)
One's musical taste changes over the years. These days my "go to" choice for the Beethoven sonatas for cello and piano would be more along the lines of the historically informed version by Steven Isserlis and Robert Levin. When I was an undergraduate music major, however, my brand-new CD player wore out the shiny disc recorded by Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax, the one containing the third and fifth sonatas. That legendary pairing took the stage of the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on Wednesday evening, for a concert honoring the memory of Isaac Stern. It was the second half of a (more than) complete cycle of the Beethoven cello sonatas, begun by Isserlis and Levin last fall.

That first installment was in the smaller venue of the Terrace Theater, a space that could not possibly hold the audience amassed for Ma and Ax. This concert had the feeling of an event, and audience enthusiasm boiled over into some applause breaks in between movements, much to the performers' amusement and (so it seemed) pleasure. The time since they recorded these sonatas for Sony represents a lot of water under the bridge. Little surprise that how they play the works now is quite different, with perhaps more little slips and minor issues, especially on Ma's part, but more importantly interpretations that were quite different.

The fourth and fifth sonatas, paired by the composer as op. 102, are sublime works of Beethoven's late period. Both end with genial fugues — solemn counterpoint as a parting wink of the eye — in a way reminiscent of the op. 110 piano sonata. The performers stretched and pulled the Andante introduction of no. 4, to meditative and tender effect, with an equally rhapsodic handling of the Adagio introduction to the second movement. They applied the same rhythmic freedom to the opening of no. 5, while here the second movement had the tragic air of a funeral march, not lachrymose but steeped in tragedy, with the major-key B section like a sweet memory. The coda of this movement was the evening's most prayerful moment, sotto voce but laser-focused.

Other Reviews:

Joe Banno, Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax, partners in sublime (Washington Post, April 14)
As a lead-in to these accomplished pieces, the second sonata (op. 5/2) was hopelessly lightweight. The players did not exactly shortchange the piece, giving the slow first movement an introspective weightiness and plenty of rustling effects in the fast second movement. It runs long and tires on the ear, and Ma seemed inclined to add more visual flourishes to his bow strokes than was strictly necessary. It is no coincidence that both Isserlis-Levin and Ma-Ax chose to end with the third sonata, op. 69, the best of the bunch. Here the players chose a relaxed tempo for the first movement, making the contrast with the much faster and busy scherzo and finale that much more striking. Neither player overdid the agogic accents of the scherzo, so that it felt more lively than unsettled, and the fleet finale showed Ax's fingers still in excellent form. The Adagio from the third violin sonata of Brahms, in its arrangement for cello and piano, served as encore.

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