Yo-Yo Ma is the world’s most popular cellist. That is not to say that he is the world’s finest cellist. The Finnish virtuoso Anssi Karttunen, for one, can more effectively make Elliott Carter’s Cello Concerto sound like music than can Ma, although it was written for him. Others play bluegrass, tangos and Kyrgyz traditional music more authentically than he.
Nor does Ma own exclusive rights to Beethoven, on whom he concentrated in a recital with pianist Emanuel Ax at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Friday night. But no one can doubt this cellist’s rare mastery of his instrument, his genuine connection with audiences, his vast versatility. He is the world’s most convivial cellist.
And all through Friday night’s program of Beethoven sonatas and variations -- sponsored by the Los Angeles Philharmonic as part of Ax’s “On Location” residency with the orchestra -- Ma’s sociability was ever conspicuous.
This was his first time back to Disney since appearing at one of the hall’s opening galas three years ago. In another Disney first, seats were added to the stage for an overflow crowd, which clearly suited Ma just fine. During a solo set of variations that Ax played, Ma cheerfully carried his cello and chair upstage to join the audience and ever so slightly -- and slyly -- upstage his pal at the piano.
Ax and Ma are old friends and chamber music partners. Like Ma, Ax, who is probably best known for his engaging way with late Romantic music (particularly Chopin and Brahms), can be musically versatile, as well, if not quite as ambitiously so as the cellist. John Adams wrote his piano concerto, “Century Rolls,” for Ax, who has championed it far and wide, turning it into a repertory piece.
For his three “On Location” weeks here, though, Ax remains on message, focusing only on Mozart and Strauss -- with Beethoven thrown in for the Ma recital. But the pianist’s own gracious affability offers its own kind of versatility.
On Friday morning, as a warmup for Ma, Ax performed, with wonderful elan, a youthful Mozart concerto at a Los Angeles Philharmonic matinee. The week after next, he will participate in a Richard Strauss melodrama, “Enoch Arden,” with Patrick Stewart reciting the Tennyson text.
Ax and Ma make an interesting pair, maybe more dissimilar than alike. As he showed in the Mozart earlier in the day (and in more Mozart concertos with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra on Tuesday), Ax has a plump, magisterial tone that resonates warmth and joy. He looks a natural at the keyboard and makes it seem as though playing the piano is the highest form of personal delight.
Ma, who is smaller and more wiry, also has a smaller and more wiry tone. Every phrase he plays is an act of showmanship. In fast music, he is the welterweight with exceptional quicker-than-the-eye-can-see reflexes. He leans forward in his chair so close to the keyboard that you almost expect him to play that as well. When Beethoven gets weighty, Ma then expressively tilts his head back and shows that he feels all our pain.
Ma and Ax covered much of Beethoven’s range, with the early sonata Opus 5, No. 2, the late sonata Opus 102, No. 2, and two sets of variations (one on “See the Conqu’ring Hero Comes” from Handel’s “Judas Maccabaeus,” the other on a duet between Pamina and Papageno from Mozart’s “Magic Flute”). In the early sonata, the piano practically dominates the cello, and Ma often ceded the case to Ax, opting for generic bouts of feistiness and soulfulness.
In the colorful variations, Beethoven once more manages to give the liveliest music to the piano, but here Ax’s fullness and grace served as friendly challenge, and Ma lunged and jabbed with infectious enthusiasm.
In the visionary, rule-breaking Opus 102, No. 2, which Ax described to the audience as coming from “somewhere in the cosmos,” the pianist headed for the stars while the cellist looked for every opening he could find.
This time, Ma was almost like a jazz improviser, responding personally to the twists of Ax’s phrasing. But it remained curiously one-sided, the cello ever hitting the ground running -- even in his emotional response to the intense, questing slow movement -- while the piano actually did head for the cosmos.
Ax’s solo was Beethoven’s Six Variations on an Original Theme, Opus 34, and it was grandly played, as was his performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 9 (“Jeunehomme”) on Friday morning, when Alan Gilbert conducted the Philharmonic.
Gilbert proved a gracious accompanist. As a young conductor on the rise, he often is out to impress (as he was last season when he led the Philharmonic in Mahler’s Ninth). But Friday, he proved unusually engaging when the music was light and characterful, as is the case with this blissful youthful Mozart concerto.
After intermission, Gilbert (who is in town to lead a new production of “Hansel and Gretel” across the street for Los Angeles Opera next month) once more demonstrated an irresistibly light touch in Strauss’ Wind Serenade, Opus 7.
But to begin and end the concert, he went for things heavier and operatic -- first Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” Overture, later Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier” Suite. They were both forceful and well played and, in both cases, in need of a hint of exactly what Gilbert elsewhere showed he is able to do best -- a light touch.