Last night at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax, two of the more engaging artists now before the public, performed a rich and sweeping version of Brahms' stirring D-minor violin sonata.
Now, wait a minute, you might observe. What's wrong with the writer? Can't he even go to a concert and figure out the instruments being played? Yo-Yo Ma is a cellist.
Well, of course he's a cellist. And that was a transcription he made for cello of the violin sonata. A transcription? Isn't the Brahms sonata hard enough to play on the violin, much less the more unwieldly cello? If you think it won't work on a cello, you just haven't heard Ma. His performance of the vigorous, exuberant last movement, with its gypsy references, was simply phenomenal. Ax's contribution was, you might say, a little more conventional, because he was playing the right instrument, the piano. He brought enormous flair to the music.
There is some question, of course, about whether a transcription of this wonderful work is fair for Brahms, or the listener. Some important things are lost. That silvery violin sound that Brahms cultivates in autumnal lyric passages can't be duplicated on the cello. And the last movement, for all Ma's virtuosity, doesn't quite have the necessary buoyancy on the cello. Still, in the hands of such artists, the work is a pleasure to hear.
And, just to clear the air, they followed it with an encore from one of Brahms' real cello sonatas, the E minor. Its delicate lyricism and irony were enchanting.
Earlier, Ma and Ax played two Beethoven sonatas, the early G minor and the late D minor. The performances were full of mystery and intensity, and they were just about as polished as one could conceive.