Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax have been involved in a personal and professional conversation for nearly 50 years, since their days at Juilliard, and with Beethoven’s Cello Sonata no. 3 in A a frequent interlocutor over 40 of them. Their recital from Tanglewood affords listeners the opportunity to eavesdrop and hear what they have to say about their old friend. As with many friendships these days, this one has found a new meaning.

Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax
© Tanglewood Festival

Except for the Adagio cantabile passage opening the third movement, the sonata is a brisk and lively conversation of equals, seemingly upbeat, and lacking a traditional slow movement. Yet, as Ax pointed out he had recently discovered the dedication in Beethoven’s hand is “Inter lacrimas et luctum” (amid tears and sorrow). This performance was fittingly more autumnal. A penumbra of melancholy shaded the sonata’s meditative lyricism from Ma’s somber, amber-hued opening passage through the first movement’s often surprising shifts to minor keys. After the impish syncopations of the scherzo, the cello mourned openly in the brief Adagio cantabile before the Allegro vivace chased all the clouds away.

Though they made no formal dedication for the Beethoven, the two short pieces which bracketed it – the Adagio from Brahms’s Violin Sonata in D minor (another old friend, with Ma always playing an octave lower) and Mendelssohn’s Song without words, O.109  – made the context clear, dedicated respectively to “the people we’ve lost” and those essential workers who have “helped us get through this.” Mendelssohn never included Op.109 amongst his Songs without words; it was given that title when published posthumously. The long, gentle melody of Brahms’s sonata would be equally worthy of the title. Nostalgic and soulful, Ma and Ax transformed this brief passage with its waltz-like lilt into the wistful memory of a dance from better times. Similarly, Mendelssohn’s melody became a soothing lullaby sung  to those for whom rest would be the greatest gift.

This performance was reviewed from the video live stream.