Ma, Ax perform beautifully together, but to a fault

April 30, 1996|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

To the audience at the Kennedy Center last night for the recital of cellist Yo-Yo Ma and pianist Emmanuel Ax, it mattered not a whit that the program was all-Beethoven. For certain listeners any event involving Ma is the musical equivalent of one that combines the virtues of the Anti-Defamation League, the NAACP, the Nature Conservancy and the Children's Defense Fund. Attending one of his concerts seems to have become an index to how good and enlightened one is.

The great cellist has been performing and recording with Ax for 20 years now, and there were few, if any, surprises about their program of Beethoven's Variations on the "Magic Flute" and the Sonatas in A Major (opus 69), C Major (opus 102, No. 1) and D Major (opus 102, No. 2). The surprise was merely that it is always astonishing to hear so much music played so beautifully.

Possibly a little too beautifully, however, and perhaps with too few surprises.

After playing together for almost all of their adult lives, Ma and Ax still do not take each other for granted. Their ensemble is so tight, however, that they sometimes seem to phrase together almost as if they were twins who were not separated at birth. Unanimity is good, but chamber music ideally consists of two separate points of view sharing a forum.

When Ma plays he often looks over his shoulder at his collaborator. This may be just a mannerism or a habit, but the effect suggests that pianist and cellist are reading from the same score on the piano's lid. To these ears, unfortunately, the performances often sounded the way they looked.

The openings of the concluding fugues in both of the composer's opus 102 sonatas, for example, were teased in precisely the same ways. And Beethoven's muscle-flexing surprises and spontaneous explosions of joy in the opus 69 sonata seemed somewhat stripped of energy and rather too pre-meditated. It could be that this writer has been listening to these fine musicians for too long. It might also be the case that Ma and Ax should try to put some fresh life into their performances by changing partners.

Pub Date: 4/30/96

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