Playing Beethoven often seems to involve choosing sides. Does it make more sense to skew his music toward the poise and restraint of the classical composers who influenced him, or to treat his work with the unbuttoned emotionalism of the later romantic composers he helped give rise to? The best of Beethoven interpreters find musical truth by marrying both of those polarities in his scores.
Cellist Yo-Yo Ma and pianist Emanuel Ax, who performed a recital of Beethoven’s Cello Sonatas Nos. 2 through 5 at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on Wednesday, got to the heart of these pieces without letting stylistic dogma overwhelm feeling or urgency. So while dynamics and phrasal attacks rarely rose above 18th-century decorum, the care over volume never felt timid or academic, but rather revealed the deep wells of inwardness and rumination woven throughout the scores. And though the duo’s plush sonorities, legato line and sense of rhapsody — often at luxurious tempos — suggested music written several generations after Beethoven, the performances never tumbled into ham-handed overstatement.
From the Adagio of Sonata No. 2 (which opened the recital) and on through the evening, the sublime slow movements proved to be highlights, with Ax’s gossamer work at the keyboard matching Ma’s luminous, songful playing phrase for phrase. Even when Beethoven called for a throatier, more extroverted approach from the cellist (as with the drone effects in Sonata No. 4), Ma’s timbre was never less than handsome, and Ax’s buoyant, pearl-toned response dovetailed with him in true partnership.