By Erica Miner
To witness Yo-Yo Ma in a live performance, especially for the first time, is an otherworldly experience. To see Ma and Emanuel Ax perform all five Beethoven cello sonatas in one evening at Tanglewood’s Koussevitzky Shed on Aug. 9 was life changing.
Part of Beethoven’s early role in music history was to help create a whole new technical and virtuosic paradigm for both the piano and the cello. With his two cello sonatas, Op. 5, written when he was only 25 and virtually starting out, the brilliant pianist Beethoven began to revolutionize the instrument’s role in the sonata repertoire, helping create a new technical paradigm in that form for piano with a solo instrument. At that point, Haydn and Mozart had demonstrated that the cello was more than just a worker bee for the bass line. Piano virtuosity was evolving.
From his Op. 5 and forward, Beethoven proved that the piano was capable of concerto-like brilliance, calling upon the instrument to play with unprecedented virtuosity even in a sonata setting. After that, sonatas often bore titles with the piano having top billing: a sonata for piano and solo instrument, rather than the other way around. With his three other cello sonatas, Op. 69, and the two of Op. 102, one can track a virtual narrative of Beethoven’s compositional history - a passageway through the master composer’s life.
The Ma-Ax duo masterfully performed that narrative. From the moment Ma took the stage, one felt transported to another realm beyond the merely musical: an altered state or level of consciousness that leaves mere mortals in its wake. That is the genius of this duo of extraordinary musicians, whose 43-year collaboration stands as the key to their staying power, as they powered through the early Sonatas No. 1 in F major and G minor, Op. 5, the middle period Sonata No. 3 in A, Op. 69, and the later Sonatas No. 4 and 5 of Opus 102.
Once he touched his bow to the strings, Ma’s familiar, characteristic gestures made it crystal clear that his psychic connection to the instrument is so complete that physical contact seems superfluous, almost unnecessary. He is capable of spiriting tunes out of the cello in the manner of Dukas’ Sorcerer, with hardly a stroke, producing ecstatic sounds with his bow just hovering over the strings.
Yet when the music called for it he dug in aggressively and firmly with a sound that was decisive but never harsh. When he launched into the first piece on the program, Beethoven’s early Op. 5 No. 1, a sound emanated throughout the shed that humans could only begin to appreciate.
His characteristic emotive gestures, marked by his alternately hugging the instrument and holding it at a distance, seem even more pronounced when one witnesses his brilliance in a live setting. Like a true guru who can convince everyone in an audience that he is speaking individually to each person, Ma captivated his audience with his effortless rapid-fire passagework and long, silky-smooth melodic lines.
By sharing equally in that mastery, Ax confirmed that the rewards of such a long-standing collaboration could be great indeed by demonstrating a keen understanding of his role with impressive, though unpretentious, displays of passage work, his fingers melding with the keys in great economy of motion to produce panoplies of impeccably played notes. Watching and listening as roulades cascaded brilliantly and precisely under Ax’s fingers was a joy. Undaunted by the fiendish technical challenges, Ax never faltered in his support, blending and merging his passagework with Ma’s, whether lightning-quick in the rapid passages or soft and supple in the gentler ones. Interestingly, in a testament to the strength of their musical bond, Ma was able to perform basically with his back turned to Ax, with the latter providing support to the soloist without compromising the integrity of the difficult passages: truly a partnership worthy of the gods.
The progression from Beethoven’s Op. 5 to his Op. 69 shows the contrasts between his early and middle period. With its subtle shifts between introspective and sweeping melodies, reminiscent of his Ghost Trio, Op. 70 No. 1, the work also evokes the brilliance of the Rasumovsky Quartets Op. 59, 74 and 96. Ma and Ax made a seamless transition between periods with their impeccable sense of style and flawless musicianship, plying the music for its contrasts of subtlety and drama.
Beethoven takes a small leap to the edge of his late period with the Op. 102 sonatas. No.1 couples lyricism with exuberance, while No. 2 leaps further toward his final works, the late string quartets, with a fugal finale. The composer famously felt lacking in his ability to write in the form in which Bach was the consummate master; yet, for example, his Grosse Fuge Op. 130 shows an idiosyncratic brilliance that no other composer could have displayed and no other duo could render with more virtuosity, panache and sheer beauty than Ax and Ma.
For the after-dinner liqueur to this extraordinary musical feast, the artists surprised the audience with a tantalizing encore: the slow movement of Brahms’ D minor Violin Sonata No. 3, Op. 108. Ma is famous for performing violin repertoire such as the Franck Sonata on the cello. His rendering of this exquisite Adagio to the composer’s final violin sonata was as lush as a spray of jasmine in a tropical garden, diffusing its heady perfume into the warm night air.
Ma also showed that humor is an integral part of his partnership with Ax when he took the microphone to explain his mock guilt at having so many fewer notes to play than Ax - 38 pages to Ax’s 155, he declared somewhat gleefully - corroboration that Beethoven had accomplished his mission to boost the piano’s role in the sonata repertoire.
Gounod called Mozart’s Don Giovanni, “A work without blemish…of uninterrupted perfection.” This evening of Beethoven with a dash of Brahms performed by Ma and Ax was a microcosm of that perfection, smaller in scope but every bit as inspiring.
Photos (public domain): masslive, inmozarts footsteps.com
Erica can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org