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A Three-Star Salute to Mendelssohn at 200

04.01.09
Emanuel Ax, Yo-Yo Ma
The New York Times

A Mendelssohn concert by the pianist Emanuel Ax, the violinist Itzhak Perlman and the cellist Yo-Yo Ma at Carnegie Hall on Tuesday evening was ostensibly a celebration of the Mendelssohn bicentennial. But it was also a reminder of the unabated star power of these celebrity musicians. Chairs were placed on both sides of the stage to accommodate the capacity audience, with plenty of teenagers and children in attendance.

The concert opened with an evocative performance of Mendelssohn's Opus 109 "Song Without Words" for piano and cello, a vehicle for Mr. Ma's gorgeous tone and elegant phrasing. Mr. Ma and Mr. Ax also performed several arrangements of "Songs Without Words" by the contemporary composer Patrick Castillo. (Mendelssohn wrote 48 such songs for piano solo.) A soulful, burnished rendition of Opus 62, No. 1, was a highlight of the evening.

Mr. Perlman offered still more arrangements of "Songs Without Words" by Mr. Castillo, these for violin and piano. In contrast to Mr. Ma's powerful sound, Mr. Perlman's tone was sometimes lackluster, and he had intonation problems throughout the evening. But he also played with expressive musicianship, sensitively accompanied by Mr. Ax in selections like Heifetz's version of Mendelssohn's Opus 19b, No. 1.

In 1837, after composing many of the "Songs Without Words," Mendelssohn said he "would rather write bigger things," a goal he quickly realized with substantial chamber works like the Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor, which the musicians performed in the first half of the program.

Mr. Ax played the muscular piano part with flair, the dark-hued opening bars representing a dramatic change from the sunny melodies of the preceding songs. The concert concluded with the Piano Trio No. 2 in C minor. Despite muddy passages and imprecise playing, it was a passionate performance that earned enthusiastic applause between movements and a rousing ovation at the end.

Then Mr. Perlman said from the stage, "It's the Mendelssohn year, so we'll play some Brahms for you." And as an encore the musicians played the second movement of Brahms's Piano Trio No. 2 in C.