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.