Notes and Editorial Reviews
Ma and Ax bring their series of Beethoven's music for cello and piano to a close with this release. No recording date is given, but we must assume the performances were taped some time after the preceding four sonatas, not only because of the later release but because of the immeasurably improved sonics. Ma is now the aural equal of Ax, and no longer sounds as if he's playing some respectful obbligato from another room. Ma's elegance and propensity toward understatement are no match for the muscular and assertive Ax as it is, and the cellist needs all the help he can get to give his 50%. an equal hearing. Which is my basic problem with the Ma-Ax partnership: I don't find them particularly well-suited to each other, especially in these
sonatas where equality is the key to the performance (as in the equal fire of Rostropovich and Richter in their be-all Philips set). But mine is a minor voice where this popular duo is concerned, and those who have followed the series with satisfaction and joy will find the familiar silken tones of the cellist and the rambunctiousness of the pianist much in evidence. Their C-major Sonata is unmistakably related to their D major, that is, both are played like early 19th-century works rather than the beginning of Beethoven's late period. Like the D major this new C major sings and jumps with an extrovertedness which is quite different from the pensive, mysterious performances we're apt to hear of these perplexing sonatas. If Rostropovich and Richter tell me a whole lot more of what I think I want to hear in these works, I nonetheless am quite taken with the spirit (and the sensational playing) of Ma and Ax, although as I've said, I'd rather hear them paired with others (Ma with Alfred Brendel sounds good, while Ax with Mischa Maisky would probably be hair-raising).
Ma lets his hair down (doesn't sound right, does it?) for the variation pieces, and he comes out slugging with his partner, with the results being some positively ebullient music-making. I've always loved the “Maccabaeus“ variations, and a quick comparison with Barenboim and du Pré (a particular favorite) clearly establishes the newer recording as the one to have for brio, virtuosity, and just plain ol' craziness. I loved it, and I was quite pleased with the sense of fun and beautiful tone (from Ma especially) in the Mozart variations. Even if the sonata is not to your liking, the variations are well worth the purchase of the disc and can easily be put at the top of the list of the not-very-many recordings of these charmers.
As mentioned above, CBS' engineers have the balance right this time, and one may enjoy this unusual partnership in warm and roomy sound. The surfaces on my copy (domestic for this issue) could have, should have, been better. The CD edition, due any day, should certainly be the medium to opt for.
Before winding up with a recommendation for fans of the Ma-Ax duo, I must mention the cover of the album which pictures these two wonderful-looking people—Ma cross-legged and Ax with his gams hanging over the keyboard—sitting atop the piano. The happiness on their faces gives me a really good feeling. If you like these boys in this repertory, or have been searching for a special recording of the three variation works, by all means snap this one up.
-- Vincent Alfano, FANFARE [9/1986] Read less
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