Yo-Yo Ma, cello and Kathryn Stott, piano; Works by Stravinsky, Villa-Lobos, Piazzolla, Guarnieri, de Falla, Messiaen and Franck, Orpheum, March 16, 2014

It always seems perplexing these days that one can put on a chamber music recital of the greatest cello sonatas in the repertoire with a very fine cellist and be lucky to sell 600 tickets.  Yet Yo-Yo Ma is sufficiently iconic, both in presence and in his remarkable accomplishments, that his appearances can fill the over 2000 seats of the largest symphony hall.  For this concert, the demand was so great that even stage seating had to be opened up. 

This was more than just a concert for specialists, so I was not quite sure what sort of theme would dominate or what sort of overall output we would get.  Yo-Yo Ma’s repertory of musical experiences is of course vast.  Would this almost gala concert have a more ‘popular’ or informal feel?  In fact, the concert had few such leanings, being essentially serious in tone but building its impact cunningly.  It conveyed, first and foremost, the simple joy and camaraderie between the cellist and distinguished British pianist Kathryn Stott, an association going back over 25 years.  Second, it used a variety of transcriptions of modern classical music to showcase the ‘art’ of the cello, illustrating just how much a cello can do, technically and expressively. Here we witnessed so many different types of bowing and attack, portamento and glissando, and intensities and shadings of vibrato, all performed with consummate ease.  As has long been the case with this artist, it was his beautifully fluent articulation in the upper register of the instrument and his wonderfully felt playing in quiet passages that probably left the biggest imprint.

The opening Suite Italianne by Stravinsky is a version of the well-known Pulcinella Suite.  With Kathryn Stott providing such an absolutely clean, firm piano accompaniment, it was easy for Yo-Yo to work his magic, combining sharp attack with a lightness and wit, occasionally moving to a more restrained expressiveness.  Played on the violin, this work can really have brazen neoclassical point; the cello perhaps does make the work softer, rounder and more romantic in feel.  But this was in many ways appropriate for the concert’s opening work.

Things heated up a bit with the three short 20th C. dance works by Villa-Lobos, Piazzolla and Guarnieri.  Here we saw wonderful control and flexibility in the cello’s upper range, and a cavalcade of pizzicato, slides, and so on -- all beautifully executed.  The latter compositions moved us into ‘steamy’ sensual rhythms, and sometimes a more jazzy feel.  This carried on with de Falla’s ‘Siete Canciones Populares Espanolas’, which saw strongly-characterized rhythms in some pieces contrasted with longer, more probing legato lines in others, producing a varied rustic tapestry. There was also a tantalizing quality coming out in the later pieces.  This is familiar territory for the artists, having previously recorded ‘Obrigado Brazil’ together with an authentic Brazilian band.  Kathryn Stott is quite masterful at bring dance rhythms to life.  I should remark that we heard the Falla pieces only two months ago, performed by Avi Avital on the mandolin. That certainly sounded different!

In many ways, the highlight of the concert was Olivier ‘Messiaen’s ‘Louange à l’Éternité de Jésus’, the sixth movement of his Quartet for the End of Time, a minimalist composition that moves in very soft, suspended lines, the piano only entering intermittently.  It would be difficult to think of playing any more poignant and beautiful than what we saw here.  Yo-Yo Ma created a whole world of subtle texture and nuance that spelled the sense of infinite time and wonder that the composer intended.  The degree of suspension at the end of this work was so great that it also seemed like forever for applause to break out.

It was an attractive idea to end the concert with the increasingly-popular cello transcription of the Franck Violin Sonata.  This actually had some novelty: for all his 90-plus CD’s, Yo-Yo Ma has seemingly never recorded it.  One treat here was seeing how pianist Katherine Stott negotiated its rhapsodic flavor; just like her award-winning Fauré, this experience was inspiring.  While I often like a cellist who attacks this work with a strong, full tone and clear rhapsodic fervor, this is of course not Yo-Yo Ma. The cellist instead often imparted a restrained intimacy to the work, using fairly fast attack and nervous intensity when he needed it, but often falling back to a more musing repose.  This was indeed interesting and often very beautiful, but sometimes I felt this was all a bit too small in scale and oversophisticated in nuance.  In particular, the simple natural motion of the last two movements seemed to be slightly burdened by the cellist’s focus on detail.  But perhaps I am just not used to this approach. 

In any event, with tumultuous applause at the end, and after two short encores, Yo-Yo Ma and Kathryn Stott walked off stage knowing they had a greatly enjoyed working together and had also performed the consummate public service: inspiring new parts of our community to enjoy, and participate in, classical music.


© Geoffrey Newman 2014