Itzhak and Yo-Yo

May 04 2010

I just listened to the new album of Mendelssohn Piano Trios by Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma, and Emanuel Ax. I got it mostly out of curiosity - I saw the album at the University Bookstore and was actually surprised to see Itzhak is still putting out recordings. His last few albums have mostly been re-issues (see here or here. The last album of his that I can remember that actually has new material is a Mozart one in which he plays Mozart 3 and then conducts the Jupiter symphony with the BPO (note that is off the top of my head - I could definitely be wrong about this). That one, to put it mildly, may not have seen Itzhak in the best light.

One of the three is younger than the others

Not only was I surprised to see Itzhak recording again, but it was equally pleasantly surprising to see him paired with Yo-Yo. Since I really love the first Mendelssohn Trio (and the second is not so bad either), I really wanted to see how this would compare with my favorite recording (currently the Heifetz-Piatigorsky-Rubinstein one).

Let me first start by saying the general atmosphere that the three establish is very restrained and prohibitive. The three never really hit highs or lows, but instead try to deliver an understated performance. Compared with the firecracker Heifetz-Piatigorsky-Rubinstein, this one is a lot slower and less energetic. These are not necessarily bad things. In the second theme of the first movement of the first Trio for instance, I really feel like I get time to savor the beautiful melody. I also really like that Perlman is not in a hurry. That’s not to say that he was slow or slowing down, but it did seem like he was consistently behind the beat when he wanted to be; the effect is nice and in stark contrast to everything Heifetz ever played. Further, the piece is kind of melancholy anyway, and I think the strategy taken by the three performers is actually justified.

Yo-Yo is fantastic. His openness and warmth of sound are made for these pieces. Itzhak doesn’t have quite the bright and powerful tone that he used to, but he does manage to keep up. I must admit that I very rarely notice the pianist in piano trios, but Ax seems to do all the right things. Overall, I like the recording very much, but it didn’t blow me away. The best way to describe my reaction is that it surpassed my low expectations. Why low? Because I have seen Itzhak Perlman perform live recently, and I have seen the debilitation in his technique and sound. Mendelssohn’s Trios are actually perfect for him at this point because they don’t require technical fingerboard gymnastics, and the climaxes are almost always in unison with the cello part.

This leads (finally) to the main point of the post. We were totally robbed of Itzhak and Yo-Yo. These two should have found each other 30 years ago and recorded the entire catalog of Piano Trios and other chamber music with each other. They have similar styles - big booming voices with an eye toward the dramatic while staying more or less conventional. Given the right pieces (such as the Archduke Trio or the Ravel Trio, just to name a few), these two would have built on each other and transcended the genre.

Instead, because of record label contracts (Itzhak was an EMI guy for most of his career, Yo-Yo has been with some form of Sony for his whole career), these guys only hooked up one previous time, and that was only possible because it was on Barenboim’s label. (PS. I loved that recording. Itzhak did some quirky stuff in the Mendelssohn because it was a live performance, and Itzhak and Yo-Yo more or less fought each other for the title of “biggest sound produced” in the first movement of the Brahms Double). It took this long for Itzhak (now in his mid-60’s) to finally team up with Yo-Yo.

Now, admittedly, they started teaming up in the mainstream earlier this decade, with the 2000 Oscars performance and more recently the Obamauguration. But even then Itzhak was losing his fastball. Looking back, his career peaked in the 80’s (see: the first Brahms recording with Giulini, or the Beethoven Sonatas set he did with Ashkenazy). Yo-Yo more or less peaked in the 90’s, but he has sustained a lot of his tone and skills.

What's up with the white turtlenecks?

This also brings me to a huge what-if for me. The Tchaikovsky Piano Trio recording with Perlman, Vladimir Ashkenazy, and Lynn Harrell is one of my five favorite music albums of all time. It goes on the desert island, and I don’t even know what goes with it as of right now. I just know it’s there. The music is so passionate and the three do such a perfect job of give and take. It is also Itzhak at his absolute apex, when he could make a climax sound like a mountain crashing in on itself. The recording was made in the early 80’s. I know Yo-Yo was a little younger then, but wouldn’t he have at least matched Harrell’s performance?

The same goes for Yo-Yo. He recorded quite a bit of chamber music with Isaac Stern when Isaac was nearing the end of his career. In those recordings, Isaac was clearly a step below his prime, as he often played out of tune and had a very muted sound with little vibrato.

I’m happy that they are playing together now. However, I can’t shake this feeling that we could have had a treasure trove of chamber recordings with the greatest violinist and cellist of the past 50 years consistently teaming up. Imagine them doing the Beethoven Piano Trios with Ashkenazy, or the Trout, or the Ravel duo. Sadly, this will have to be filed under one of the better musical what-ifs: what if Itzhak Perlman and Yo-Yo Ma had been under the same record label?

Topics: MusicMusic:AlbumsMusic:Chamber Music

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