Los Angeles Music Review: EMANUEL AX’S BRAHMS PROJECT: EMANUEL AX AND YO-YO MA (Disney Hall)

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by Tony Frankel on February 27, 2014

in Theater-Los Angeles

AN INCOMPARABLE DISPLAY OF THE MASTER PLAYED BY THE MASTERS

Pianist Emanuel Ax’s Brahms Project continued last Tuesday night at a recital with cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Perhaps the most relaxing engagement I have ever experienced at Disney Hall, three cello/piano sonatas and a new solo piano work by Brett Dean resulted in a calming experience, almost as if I were at a spa retreat for massaging the soul.

Ma is still youthful, robust and in fine fettle; indeed, he was just as eager and modest as the first time I saw him many, many years ago (he will be 59 this October). Yet it was Ax’s work that took me by surprise. Ax, who seemed somewhat weary and pedal-heavy during Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 just over a month ago, was more jaunty than lumbering, and his love for Brahms was evident in his gentle, almost subtle, phrasing in the sonatas. The duo has played together for decades, and their give-and-take is a well-oiled machine; the secret to their success lies between Ax’s affection and Ma’s soulfulness.

Pianist Emanuel Ax

Brahms may have been a Classicist in form and technique, but the two pieces in the first act were dominated by his Romantic expression, beginning with the Cello Sonata No. 1 in E minor, Op. 38. Ax instantly elucidated in the Allegro non troppo the performance directions by German cellist Hugo Becker—who played with Brahms: “The piano should be a partner—often a leading, often a watchful and considerate partner—but it should under no circumstances assume a purely accompanying role.”

Both the Op. 38 and the second piece, the Sonata in D major, Op. 78 (a violin sonata arranged for cello and piano by Paul Klengel), were positively soothing. Certainly these may be the most meditative and dazzlingly lovely works in all of Brahms’ chamber pieces, but the effect was downright pacifying. Both artists were so highly sensitive to the sonatas’ introspective temperament—seamlessly negotiating the floating melody between the instruments—that I would have given my eye teeth for a lounge chair. It took a lot of effort not to close my eyes and drift off into a Brahmsian lullaby land, but I’m glad to have watched Ma. I’ve never seen anyone appear more relaxed when playing cello, but the strings sang as if being attacked by an athlete. Ma also had his music at the ready, but didn’t seem to glance at the pages as I could tell. I also loved how when the melody united on both instruments, Ma leaned in towards Ax, whose head was turned toward his partner.

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The second movement of the Op. 78, the Adagio, stressed the duo’s effect at Disney Hall. The amazing acoustics had the soft music traveling up to the highest reaches of the auditorium, and the soulful and tender playing cast a spell over the entire hall, mesmerizing both patrons and members of the Simón Bolívar orchestra, who watched from on stage behind Ax and Ma. In fact, it was so quiet that I believe I could hear the normally inaudible air conditioning coming through the vents.

The performance of the Cello Sonata No. 2 in F Major, Op. 99 was both invigorating and spiritual. If the Adagio in the transposed Violin Sonata was transporting, this Adagio, gorgeous, soothing, and passionate, was the highlight of the evening. Ma displayed a stronger physical presence than before; he seemed to revel in leaning forward and momentarily pushing his cello away to finish phrases with a flourish. The brash Scherzo called for plucking from Ma which was astoundingly loud and precise. The theme was cheerful and almost casually expressed. There were melodies aplenty throughout the night, and the Op. 99 capped an inspiring confluence of composer and artists.

Cellist Yo-Yo Ma

The three short movements comprising Australian composer Brett Dean’s Hommage à Brahms (a West Coast premiere and LA Phil co-commission) was never derivative of Brahms, but certainly took some inspiration from the shaping and qualities of his music. This lovely new work did, however, call to mind both great composers and pianists throughout the last century. The first movement mimicked the compositional techniques of Brahms, but sounded more like Symbolist composers such as Ravel. The second movement conjured up Brahms’ Rhapsody, Op.78 but with plenty of skipping, hopping and jumping on the keys. This and the more tinkly, graceful and reflective third movement were fascinating blends that sounded like Brahmsian themes sandwiched between a Keith Jarrett composition and a Chick Corea improvisation. It was a vivid and welcome debut, played with first-rate assurance and expressiveness by Ax.

For his Brahms Project, Ax invited several of today’s top composers to create pieces to be paired with Brahms’ timeless music. The remaining Brahms Project performance features Ax with Gustavo Dudamel and the LA Phil, May 1 – 3, in a program which includes the Piano Concerto No. 2 and a World Premiere of Andrew Norman’s Suspend.

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photos courtesy of LA Phil

Ax’s Brahms Project
Emanuel Ax, piano
Yo-Yo Ma, cello
presented by Los Angeles Philharmonic
Walt Disney Concert Hall
played Tuesday, February 25, 2014
for more events, call 323.850.2000 or visit www.LAPhil.com

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