Adagio and Allegro, Op.70
Funf Stücke im Volkston, Op.102
Remembering Schumann [New York premiere]
Polonaise brillante in C, Op.3
Sonata in G minor for Cello and Piano, Op.65
Yo-Yo Ma (cello) & Emanuel Ax (piano)
Reviewed by: David M. Rice
Reviewed: 29 January, 2010
Venue: Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City
Over the 33-year course of Ax and Ma’s partnership, they have performed and recorded virtually the entire cello-piano repertory. They play together with evident ease and an innate sense of communication that translates into superb music-making in whatever they undertake. Their interpretations of Schumann and Chopin were stylish and appropriately idiomatic, and they brought corresponding insight to their performance of Lieberson’s new work, successfully capturing its Schumannesque qualities.
The programme opened with Schumann’s Adagio and Allegro, a piece originally written for French horn and piano, but which was also published – with the composer’s authorisation – in alternative versions for the violin and for the cello. Right from the opening notes of the Adagio’s lovely melody, Ma’s cello sang out with lustrous tone and without rough spots. The Allegro’s sprightly main theme and the piano’s accompanying figures were quite characteristic of Schumann’s style.
Schumann’s Five Pieces in Folk Style, which dates from the same year (1849, the year of Chopin’s death) as the Adagio and Allegro, began with the composer’s emulation of a rustic folk-tune, marked Mit Humor. Hesitating at first, Ax’s piano soon took off like a rocket to Ma’s chordal accompaniment. The two cleverly managed a false ending that was soon followed by a surprisingly sudden real one. In the slower second and third movements, rife with lovely melodies for the cello, Ma played with tender sensitivity, with Ax’s piano in a relatively subdued role, but the two were more equal partners in the two lively movements that conclude the work.
Peter Lieberson’s Remembering Schumann (co-commissioned and being toured by Ma and Ax) was given a stylish performance and is reminiscent of Schumann himself in many ways. It is in a form that Schumann employed often, consisting of three sets of variations, the last of which is based on the notes A-S-C-H (in German notation) that Schumann used in Carnaval and other works. Most significantly, however, Lieberson’s composition embodies harmonic and rhythmic structures that are strongly evocative of Schumann’s music, with the new work’s more modern aspects relegated to a secondary role. Remembering Schumann is by no means groundbreaking, and is itself unlikely to be remembered as typifying Lieberson’s own oeuvre. It does, however, add an entertaining work to the cello-piano repertory, as well as commemorating appropriately a notable anniversary.
The first half of the programme concluded with Chopin’s Polonaise brillante, written just after the composer’s graduation from the Warsaw Conservatory at age 19. The transition from the extended slow introduction (which Chopin added at a later time) to the polonaise was managed brilliantly, as was the interplay of that melody with the contrasting lyrical second subject. This youthful piece afforded both players ample opportunity to show off their virtuosity.
Schumann’s Fantasiestücke, also from the composer’s prolific year of 1849, consists of three short pieces, played without interruption. Although this work is less demanding technically than the Schumann works played before the interval, as it was meant to be sold to musical amateurs, Ax and Ma were able to demonstrate their fine technique and musicianship.
The recital concluded with Chopin’s Sonata in G minor, written some 16 years after the showy Polonaise brillante and demonstrative of a far more mature compositional style. Ma and Ax made a compelling case for regarding this work as among the finer sonatas in the cello-piano repertory. In the opening Allegro moderato, which accounts for more than half of the sonata’s duration, Ma and Ax deftly managed the intricate interplay between their instruments, whilst sensitively exploring the movement’s inventive melodic and harmonic development and varying moods. The scherzo began with Ma’s rather fiery principal theme, played to Ax’s syncopated piano accompaniment. Its central trio section featured a lyrical but dark melody that Ma played with a singing tone. In the Largo, Ma’s sweetly played melody was taken up by the piano with the cello accompanying in deep chords, further demonstrating the remarkable beauty of Ma’s tone even at the extremes of the cello’s range. The concluding Allegro was a showpiece of virtuoso pyrotechnics, especially for the cello, as Ma breezed through a succession of trills, grace notes, double stops and deep chords played with huge down-bows. The music changed moods, becoming dance-like and then slowing to a highly accented passage before accelerating to a dramatic finish.
For an encore, the duo played an arrangement for cello of the Adagio from Brahms’s Violin Sonata in D minor (Opus 108).