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Mon Dec 13, 2004

Glamourous piano-cello duo shines

Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax, December 10, 2004

The Vancouver Sun

by David Gordon Duke

Pianist Emanuel Ax and cellist Yo-Yo Ma form one of North America’s most glamorous duos. Their superstar status notwithstanding, Ax and Ma have developed in the years since their first Vancouver performance in 1986. Both have been influenced by and adapted to new performing directions: Ax with his “authentic piano” Chopin, Ma through his work with the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra.

Does it matter in an all-Beethoven program? Beethoven’s cello sonatas were conceived in the tradition of accompanied piano sonatas and, given the sound of then contemporary instruments, the notion of beefing up the bass with cello made practical sense. Today’s modern instrument performers have to think long and hard about how to make the sonatas work.

Friday’s program, which started amiably enough, proved tough and demanding. The variations on Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen from Mozart’s The Magic Flute, too inventive to be conventional, established the duo’s expansive and ultra-stylish delivery. A similar style held in the early Sonata in F major, Op.5, No. 1. Beautifully synchronized playing in the improvisatory Adagio sostenuto fused into the frisky Allegro, with its showy cadenza-like coda (which fooled neophytes in the house into premature applause). Ax and Ma egged each other on, so that it was sometimes hard to know where extroverted charm ended and mannerisms began.

Ax took the unexpected step of addressing the audience after the variations, and his shaggy, humorous comments about the first half’s two sonatas made an important point. The first sonata is by a young composer with something to prove; the second is an entirely different matter. With the audience suitably warned, the performers did nothing to sugar-coat Opus 102, No.1. The duo matched the edgy music with a range of sound which in most other contexts might have seemed forced or downright ugly, but their commitment to this almost exasperatingly intense work was total.

After the interval came two further aspects of Beethoven. By the standards of Opus 102, the Variations on Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen from The Magic Flute are little more than a cynical potboiler; yet Ma’s cantabile in the penultimate variation was strangely reassuring.

The approachable A major Sonata, Op.69 provided a sure and clever conclusion, with a performance that emphasized formal design in the opening movement, rhythm in the scherzo, and glittering showmanship in the finale.

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