Cello Sonatas Nos 1-5; Variations, WoO 45 & 46
Yo-Yo Ma (cello), Emanuel Ax (piano)
Sony Classical 19439883732 148:47 mins (2 discs)
Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax made their first Beethoven sonata recordings back in 1981. Forty years later they return to them, amidst a pandemic. The album’s title quotes Beethoven who was supposed to have inscribed a copy of his Op. 69 sonata with the words ‘amid tears and grief’.
The readings have a lived-in quality: lively, warm, articulate, spacious and deeply felt on the plus side, a little frayed around the edges and tending towards the baggy on the other. They exude the overriding brio of these revolutionary works; in fact, turning back again to the 1980s recordings, precision and propriety has given way to something grander, and more fragile.
I have some issues with the recording: it’s not the first time I’ve found Ma’s cello to be saturated with higher frequencies, and missing a bass depth, particularly in the G and D major sonatas, and in the festive F major Ma favours articulation over sound. Those familiar with a fortepiano/cello balance will find Ax unapologetically big-boned, and some of his pedalling luxuriant, though never domineering.
They find a visionary space in the recitatives and cadenzas of the two late sonatas. Ma is especially luminous in the unfolding of A major and C major sonatas, and floats the Adagio cantabile of Op. 69 with breathtaking simplicity. The only disappointment is the C major Allegro, which is too deliberate, while the D major fugue lacks some heft from the cello – though his conjuring of the fugue theme as a distant memory in the coda is worth the cost of the whole set.