Album review: Splendidly organic journey through the Beethoven realm with Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax

Among the Ludwig van Beethoven oeuvre, the works for cello and piano comprise a microcosm of their own, extending into an encompassing twenty-year span and demonstrating the most fascinating developmental arch, both in terms of the composer’s style and within the very medium itself.

Beethoven’s first forays to the genre originate in the mid-1790s, comprising of two sonatas and three sets of variations on themes by George Frideric Handel and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Titled as sonatas for pianoforte and violoncello, the early works were, customarily, conceived as virtuoso vehicles for the keyboard, with supporting string part. Although the convention carried over to the titles of the later sonatas as well, their musical conception went through a process of radical transformation.

The Sonata No. 3 in A major, Op. 69 (1807-08), the only one of the five to be published as a single volume, marks the first entry in the medium where the two instruments are treated as equals. Cast in three movements, two allegros framing a central scherzo, and lasting circa 25 minutes, the sonata is a celebration of musical transformations, as Beethoven makes full use of the two instruments and their ability to portray different aspects of the initial material.

Written simultaneously in 1815, the two last sonatas comprise Beethoven’s Opus 102. While the Sonata No. 4 in C major harks back to the two-movement form of the first sonatas, it adopts a contemplative tone, perhaps most notably in the slow introductions to both movements. In the course of the sonata, musical motives are reworked into the most ingenious ways, often leading to somewhat surprising, yet ever uplifting conclusions.

The Sonata No. 5 in D major is, in many ways, the polar opposite of its introverted companion. Cast in a three-movement fast-slow-fast scheme, the sonata comes off as a playful affair, yet not devoid of darker undercurrents. As a whole, the Opus 102 sonatas call forth players of utmost sensitivity and compelling virtuosity.

Recorded at the Seiji Ozawa Hall in Tanglewood last August, the joint venture into the Beethoven cello and piano catalog by Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax on Sony is, without question, one of the key releases to emerge from the composer’s pandemic-ridden 250th anniversary year. The three-disc album is titled Hope Amid Tears, carrying double reference to both the covid era and Beethoven’s own (alleged) description of his Third Sonata.

Comrades in arms for decades, Ma and Ax share and communicate musical ideas is seamless narrative throughout the album’s intriguing arch, giving rise to a sonic journey of unique intensity. From the youthful tableaux of the early sonatas to the dazzling counterpoint of the last sonata’s fugal finale, this is music-making in the most profound sense of the word, devoid of any self-indulgence.

The first two sonatas are propelled by Ax’s joyful takes on their splendid piano parts, luminously coloured by Ma’s glowing cello lines. In the three ensuing sonatas, their musical partnership grows into a fully-fledged musical discussion among two equals, giving rise to a long series of the most inspiring musical meetings.

Fully supported by the marvellous Sony recording team, who provide a focused, yet admirably spacious sonics, the brilliant undertaking by Ma and Ax is given an insightful disc outing. Based on repeated hearings, the cycle is also one to mature well, as the ear picks more finesse and detail upon each iteration, from the extraordinary dynamic articulation to the sublime grasp of texture and phrasing. The sense of architecture is solid throughout the performances, as the music unfolds in the most natural manner in the hands of Ma and Ax.

Comprising the third disc, the three sets of variations, dating from 1796 and 1801, appear both as perfect encores as well as an apt demonstration of yet another aspect of Beethoven’s art. Within both Die Zauberflöte sets, Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen (1801) and Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen (1796) as well as the Judas Maccabaeus one, See the conquering hero comes (1797), the peerless communication between Ma and Ax is beautifully highlighted, resulting in unforgettable moments of top-class music-making, where virtuosity and sincerity meet.

Throughout the whole three-disc set, there is a remarkable sense of continuity, with each performance picking up where the previous one left, while anticipating the one to follow. Perhaps some listeners will find themselves looking for some enhanced variety between the earliest works and the late ones, whereas others will cherish the splendidly organic growth within the cycle. In any case, this is a set well worth many hours of keen-eared listening.

Emanuel Ax, piano

Yo-Yo Ma, cello

Ludwig van Beethoven: Sonata No. 1 in F major, Op. 5, No. 1 (1796) for pianoforte and violoncello

Ludwig van Beethoven: Sonata No. 2 in G minor, Op. 5, No. 2 (1796) for pianoforte and violoncello

Ludwig van Beethoven: Sonata No. 3 in A major, Op. 69 (1807-08) for pianoforte and violoncello

Ludwig van Beethoven: Sonata No. 4 in C major, Op. 102, No. 1 (1815) for pianoforte and violoncello

Ludwig van Beethoven: Sonata No. 5 in D major, Op. 102, No. 2 (1815) for pianoforte and violoncello

Ludwig van Beethoven: Seven Variations on a Theme ”Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen” from Mozart’s Opera ”Die Zauberflöte”, WoO 46 (1801)

Ludwig van Beethoven: Twelve Variations on a Theme ”See the conquering hero comes” from Handel’s ”Judas Maccabaeus”, WoO 45 (1797)

Ludwig van Beethoven: Twelve Variations on a Theme ”Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen” from Mozart’s Opera ”Die Zauberflöte”, Op. 66 (1796)

Recorded at the Seiji Ozawa Hall, Tanglewood, Lennox, MA in August 2020

Sony Classical 19439883732 (2021), 3 CDs

© Jari Kallio

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