New York Music Daily

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Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax’s New Beethoven Album: A Party in a Box

If classical music is party music for you, Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax‘s new all-Beethoven album Hope Amid Tears – streaming at Spotify – is a party in a box. It’s two old friends playing familiar material in a very defamiliarized way. You think you know Beethoven’s music for cello and piano? If you’ve listened to Beethoven for any length of time, you probably know at least the first couple of sonatas; the three sets of variations for cello and piano have not withstood the test of time so well. Throughout this collection, the fun these guys are having is irresistible, finding all sorts of hidden gems, and jokes, and poignancy. What’s more, they play the sonatas chronologically, so you can follow Beethoven’s development as a composer, cautiously emerging from Haydn’s shadow to become the crazed genius he was by the end.

This is a long record, a real feast: to fully appreciate it, you probably will not want to try to digest it all in a single setting. The highlights are too numerous to chronicle. The recording levels vary somewhat in places: Ma is serendipitously high in the mix, especially in Sonata No. 1 where he doesn’t get a lot of time in the spotlight, so that’s a big plus.

There’s a lot of space in this disarmingly intimate music. Moments that others might play as straight-faced pageantry are sly or just plain goofy here. Likewise, Ma and Ax linger here in calmer interludes that less seasoned musicians might gloss over, emotional context is everything. If you thought this was comfortable, routine wine-hour music for the World Economic Forum types of the early 19th century (not that such a thing existed – oligarchs back then hadn’t figured out how to conspire), these two prove definitively otherwise.

If you’re not a classical music fan but might be curious enough to check this out, start with Sonata No. 3. By that point in his career, Beethoven had moved on from endless sequences of clever chord changes to writing with more reckless abandon. And at this point, the cello has become much more than a mere support instrument for flash from the piano. That hymnal theme in the first movement is far more restrained and rustic than is the custom, and that absolutely gorgeous initial tradeoff between cello and piano really sings. The pogo-sticking introduction to movement two – essentially a country dance – is just plain ridiculous. And the third movement, where Ma soars free of the cello’s midrange for the first time, is packed with dynamic subtleties.

By the time we get to Sonata No. 4, Beethoven has grown into himself (and his obsession with false endings, some more devious than others). Nocturnal lustre interchanges with dark heroics, and Ma gets to sink his fingers and bow into more regal, symphonic parts. You could make a strong case that No. 5, saturnine triumph bookending an elegy, is the album’s title track.

The first two sonatas are more predictable but hardly without moments of joy or solemn discovery. The sheer matter-of-factness of No. 1, the crescendos far from florid, the dips far from languid, makes for steady fun. Ax’s decision to let the upper-register ornaments in No. 2 flit away, while using their counterparts in the lows as integral to upward cascades or arpeggios pays off strongly. Ma opting to hang just a bit behind the beat in the beginning of No. 2, before the two join in a memorably commingled rumble, is another insightful touch.

The three sets of variations are the closest thing to wine-hour sonic wallpaper for oligarchs here, although the sudden change to minor-key plaintiveness in the first is unselfconsciously striking, as is the subtler shift toward a similar atmosphere in the variations on a rather prayerful Handel theme in the second.

Samantha Fish’s Hard-Rocking Retro Soul Stands the Test of Time

The last time singer/guitarslinger Samantha Fish played New York, it was at Highline Ballroom – that’s how long her album Chills & Fever (streaming at Bandcamp) has been sitting on the hard drive here. It’s a standout in the ever-increasingly crowded field of musicians (and what’s left of the music industry bottomfeeders) who’ve figured out that a lot of people whose lives aren’t dictated by what’s popular on Instagram really love going out to dance to oldschool soul music. 

Or did –  until the lockdown destroyed everything.

Fish and her purist band revisit those sounds with a lot more rock energy than most: everything on this record is louder than on your typical classic soul album, and the band benefit from using gear with more dynamic range than tinny, sixty-year-old Vox amps. There’s a lot of music here: fourteen tracks! The first one, Jackie DeShannon’s He Did It gets turbocharged with a horn section – Mark Levron on trumpet and Travis Blotsky on saxes – and Fish’s haphazardly edgy, blues-tinged guitar breaks. But it also has a 21st-century edge: Fish amps up the lyric about being shamed by a backstabbing dude.

Shivery baritone sax kicks off the title track, a backbeat-driven noir take on Ronnie Love’s 1961 soul anthem with eerily echoey Rhodes piano from Bob Mervak. The album’s longest track, Ted Taylor’s Somebody’s Always Trying comes across as an even higher-energy remake of that song, with a careening jam at the end. Fish obviously has a thing for darkly torchy soul: she revisits that simmering vibe later with It’s Your Voodoo Working, set to a soul-clap beat, and then the slow, brooding Either Way I Lose, with Fish’s ominous wide-angle tremolo guitar.

She reinvents the old Barbara Lewis 70s soul hit Hello Stranger by taking it doublespeed, with Steve Nawara’s dancing bassline and the horns balanced by trebly organ and rippling Rhodes fills. Just when you think that the Irma Thomas hit Hurts All Gone is a going to be a balmy southern soul ballad, the guitars kick in hard on the chorus. Then Fish picks up the pace again with You Can’t Go, its sharp staccato riffage in the background behind her long blues guitar solo played through a 80s chorus pedal.

Lushly swaying along in 12/8 time, Never Gonna Cry is a defiantly soaring breakup ballad, The band make an improbably connection between 60s go-go shuffles and bluegrass with the Detroit Cobras’ Little Baby, then hit a relative calm with an appropriately organ-driven, gospel-tinged version of Allen Toussaint’s Nearer to You.

They follow You’ll Never Change, a snippy minor-key soul-blues tune, with a southern rock version of the old murder ballad Crow Jane. The album winds up with I’ll Come Running Over, the poppiest number here, an Australian hit for blue-eyed soul singer Lynne Randell. Fans of artists like Lizzie & the Makers, who use oldschool soul as a stepping-off point for sounds that aren’t limited by the format, should give this a spin.