"Sonatas for Cello and Piano, Opp. 38, 99, 108"
Sony Classical (1992)
1000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die
Moon is wise to open the stretch of Johannes Brahms' compositions with "Sonatas for Cello and Piano," and particularly wise to choose a version played by pianist Emmanuel Ax and cellist Yo-Yo Ma. For one, Ma is the closest thing to a rock star that classical music has right now, what with playing at presidential inaugurations and whatnot. Obviously, to be one of the few classical musicians that an average American has heard of, you're probably pretty qualified for the job. Hence we can enter the world of Brahms with a point of reference.
The interesting thing is that these sonatas (Ops. 38, 99 and 108) were most likely not meant to showcase the cello, or at least not meant for the cello to overshadow the piano. Brahms himself was a skilled pianist, and it stands to reason that he would draft sonatas to display his own talent. There's a famous anecdote where an accompanist complains that the composer is playing too loudly and blocking out his own instrument, to which Brahms reportedly replied "lucky for you."
Ax is no slouch (not only because his last name is "Ax"), but he makes sure to give Ma his fair share of spotlight. It may seem odd that one instrument could hog the attention during a two-instrument sonata with a predetermined composition, but of all instruments, the piano has that ability. More often than not, the pianist interprets pace and emphasis. In Brahms' case, the cellist is expected to follow suit. This wasn't Ma and Ax's first time at the rodeo together however, which explains why this recording flows so well. They might not know in advance what the other is thinking, but they've got a better sense than most.
Even if my theory is correct and Brahms wrote these sonatas for his own showboating, he left plenty of room for the cellist to wiggle. Although Ops. 38 and 108 are in minor keys, the traditional allegro openings don't allow for dreariness. The pair takes turns running during "Allegro Vivace," the opening number to Op. 99, and shifting between upbeat and downbeat paces. Ax plays a tremolo-style of piano, which is essentially a classy way of saying "saloon-style." The sonata, in F-major, slows down for an adagio, and then picks up for another allegro, "Allegro Passionato." I found the latter to be the most exciting portion of the three sonatas presented, and was a little bummed when it ended on the more introspective "Allegro Molto." As you can probably tell, I am neither Brahms nor a genius.
I draw issue with Moon's claims that simpler is the best way to get someone interested in classical music. I know that Vivaldi and all his Baroqueness drew my initial attention to the form. But if you have to start with two-person sonatas, might as well make it Ma and Ax. We'll see how complex Brahms works for beginners in two entries, with his four symphonies.
INTERESTING FACT: I wasn't kidding when I said AxMa (my celebrity relationship name for the pair) played together a lot. Ax has won five Grammys, all of them for recordings done with Ma. Ma has won 16 Grammys.