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Music review: Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax at Disney Hall

January 28, 2010 |  1:45 pm
Ma ax

An evening of works for cello and piano, like that at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Wednesday night, is what we typically call a cello recital. The pianist is not exactly chopped liver, especially when the recital is devoted to Schumann and Chopin, and when the pianist is no less than Emanuel Ax.

But then the cellist was no less than Yo-Yo Ma, a name that sells like few others in classical music. Yet Ax’s name came first on the program. I can think of four possible explanations.

The first is that Ax/Ma has a better ring to it than, well, Max. Second, Schumann and Chopin meant far more to the piano literature than they did to that of the cello. Third, the two soloists are long-standing friends and decided to use an alphabetical listing. Fourth, Ax, who is the more restrained of the two on stage but said to be more mischievous off, simply switched the names when no one was looking.

Their purpose, however, was not in question. We’ve just entered a Schumann/Chopin 200th anniversary year – both composers were born in 1810 – and Ax and Ma are using their own distinct personalities to begin an intriguing discussion of two similar but also completely individual composers. Neither Schumann nor Chopin wrote all that much for cello and piano, and a good deal of it could be squeezed onto a single program while still allowing room for “Remembering Schumann,” a captivating new duo by Peter Lieberson.

If the evening was more Schumann-centric, he was more the cello man than Chopin, and the program featured his smaller character pieces for the instrument, with song-like structures that suited him (and the cello) perfectly. Indeed, many authorities believe Schumann was at his highest inspiration in his songs. And the cello was, for him, a kind of super-human voice.

That happens to suit Ma perfectly. He is an essentially lyrical player with a surprisingly delicate tone. His admired robustness comes from a combination of intense body language, powerful phrasing and intense vibrato, as well as all-around fervor and sociability.

Ma warmed up in Schumann’s short Adagio and Allegro, which opened the program, but quickly assumed the function of character player in “Five Pieces in a Folk Style,” which followed. The title of the first asks for it to be played “Mit Humor,” and Ma was straight man. But he is a man of many emotions, and elsewhere he was ardent lover and grand enthusiast. Ax remained in the background, well-mannered yet intense accompanist. They were even dressed like star and host – Ma fashionably in a dark suit with black shirt, Ax (like President Obama in his State of the Union speech) in white shirt and red tie.

Lieberson’s elegiac “Remembering Schumann” treated the duo as equals and paid homage to Schumann as songster. The composer has himself contributed importantly to the American song literature, particular in works for his late wife, the mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson (who happened to be a fabulous Schumann singer). The composer has also worked before with both instrumentals (they participated in the premiere of his large-scale chamber work, “King Gesar,” which is crying out for a revival).

“Remembering Schumann,” which had its first performance Tuesday in San Francisco at the beginning of the Ax and Ma tour and which will be played again in Carnegie Hall in New York on Friday, was co-commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic (the Disney program’s presenter) and is part of an ongoing relationship between the orchestra and Lieberson. His “Neruda Songs,” one of the most admired new works of the past decade, was another L.A. Philharmonic commission and will be repeated in April when Gustavo Dudamel returns.[updated 9:55 a.m. An earlier version of this review misspelled Neruda.]

The new 17-minute duo is in three movements, each a set of variations on chords, a melody or the letters of Schumann’s name in music notation (and slightly rearranged). The 19th century composer is not so much remembered here as half remembered and half envisioned in a spaced-out Schumann dream, with fragments filled out in a new language.

“Remembering Schumann” is virtuosic yet subtle. Past and present become indistinguishable, and the variations become not so much inventions but different ways of looking at the same materials.

For the two Chopin works, the early and insignificant Introduction and Polonaise Brillante and the late and significant Cello Sonata, Ax took control. He is one of our most celebrated Chopin pianists, and it is the elaborate piano parts in these works, particularly the sonata, that give juicy cello melodies their substance and meaning.

Ax and Ma recorded these works in the early ‘90s when both sounded daisy fresh. They still do, but their interplay has grown with an impassioned Ax insistently handing over a tune to Ma as if he were passing along hot nuclear material.

The encore was strange. Ma was apparently the joker here, transposing the violin line down an octave in the slow movement of Brahms’ Third Violin Sonata. It was haunting.

— Mark Swed

Photo: Cellist Yo-Yo Ma and pianist Emanuel Ax at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Wednesday. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times