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Pianist and Cellist Have an Encounter With Chopin and Schumann

02.01.10
Emanuel Ax, Yo-Yo Ma
The New York Times

By Vivien Schweitzer

A duo recital for piano and cello is not the most obvious way to celebrate the Schumann and Chopin bicentennials, since both composers treated the cello as a relatively minor player. But at Carnegie Hall on Friday evening the cellist Yo-Yo Ma joined the pianist Emanuel Ax in the first of three recitals Mr. Ax is devoting to the two composers. It’s an indication of the continuing popularity of these performers, who are frequent collaborators, and of the Romantic repertory that the hall was packed, with audience members crowded onto both sides of the stage.

The shared birth year of Schumann and Chopin perhaps makes it inevitable that their anniversaries should be celebrated jointly. Although they are certainly very different composers who followed divergent paths, similarities abound: The music of each is full of whimsy and imagination, and their lives and careers were curtailed by fragility, Schumann’s mental and Chopin’s physical.

The program opened with Schumann’s Adagio and Allegro (Op. 70), originally written for horn. Mr. Ma spun out the melody of the tender first movement with eloquent phrasing before plunging into the fiery Allegro. Schumann’s Five Pieces in Folk Style (Op. 102), which followed, illuminate his penchant for small-scale forms and his fondness for contrasting dreaminess with vigorous outbursts.

Mr. Ma and Mr. Ax also performed the New York premiere of Peter Lieberson’s “Remembering Schumann,” which conveys the spirit of this Romantic composer in a contemporary voice. Mr. Lieberson, who writes that he has always loved Schumann while being “somewhat scared by how unhinged his music could be,” constructed this three-movement work on a variations form.

The cello unfolds with rhapsodic flair over oscillating piano chords in the first movement; the third is based on a signature motif that Schumann used in “Carnaval” and other works. Contrasting melodious interludes with agitated sections, the score aptly evokes its namesake, perhaps to a fault: except for a few piquant harmonies, Schumann’s voice overpowered Mr. Lieberson’s. Mr. Ax and Mr. Ma played it with obvious dedication.

Schumann was also represented by his Fantasiestücke (Op. 73), miniatures intended for amateurs and sometimes performed by violin or clarinet with piano.

Mr. Ax and Mr. Ma offered a spirited rendition of Chopin’s popular “Polonaise Brillante” in C, which the composer self-deprecatingly called “nothing but tinsel.” The program concluded with Chopin’s Cello Sonata in G minor, not a work that rates highly in comparison with his extraordinary output for solo piano. But Mr. Ax and Mr. Ma, equal and expressive partners throughout, offered an elegant rendition.