Yo-Yo Ma wows a capacity crowd with Palladium recital

Yo-Yo Ma and Kathryn Stott displayed fine partnership.
To make for a provocative tweet (and who doesn't do that from time to time?), I previewed Yo-Yo Ma's Palladium recital Wednesday night by noting that he and pianist Kathryn Stott would be playing the Cesar Franck Sonata in A major, which cellists like to "steal" from violinists.

Of course, that facetious dig concealed the fact that the composer approved an arrangement for cello and piano. Thus, the tradition that Ma and Stott followed, thrilling a capacity audience, is both legitimate and well-established. Even better, the duo interpreted the piece in such a way that showcased advantages of this version.

Master of soft playing that he is, Ma held the audience spellbound whenever he moved into that end of the dynamic spectrum. He launched the cello's first-movement theme as an insinuation more than a declaration. Subsequently, with like-minded dynamics from the pianist, the performance walked back the heart-on-sleeve aspect of many violin-piano performances of the work.

This seemed not only a deliberate choice, but also a feature of hearing those wonderful melodies and splendid figuration from a lower string voice. The result restrained the emotional impact that it's natural for the violin to represent in Romantic music. To some listeners, perhaps, this was not the Franck sonata they were accustomed to. But it struck me as refreshing and insightful.

I liked the rush up to the end of the first movement, which stood in more contrast to what had preceded it than usual. Also, the recitative portion of the third movement came across as particularly thoughtful, and the hymn-like cello tune in the "Fantasia" was more balanced, both emotionally and in tonal weight. In the finale, where the cello overlaps the piano's phrases, Ma played daringly behind the pianist's tempo, but not enough to imperil coordination. Again, a sober, reflective quality came through; the excitement was measured and well-distributed.

The performance had a captivating quality of a whole different order from the work's premiere, when the audience urged the dedicatee, violinist Eugene Ysaye, and his pianist to complete their performance despite growing darkness in the concert hall, where illumination was not permitted. They are said to have finished in bravura fashion, having memorized the new piece. It was that kind of enchantment that Ma and Stott provided in a hall with 21st-century lighting in full working order.

After prefixing their performance of a suite called "Arc of Life" with Fauré's "After a Dream" (in tribute to the Paris massacre victims), the duo played Shostakovich's Sonata in D minor. Ma showed his superlative bow control in so many ways, not just in the firmest and lightest touch you're ever likely to hear from a cellist. The staccato main theme of the finale was played near the frog (the end of the bow near the hand that holds it) with a barely detectable motion. It gave an extra suspensefulness to music that eventually shows off the cellist's agility and the duo's gift for projecting that characteristically ambiguous Shostakovich sense of humor.

Heart-stopping melodies, embraced by the two famous settings of "Ave Maria" (Bach/Gounod and Schubert), encompassed as well the sauciness of Jacob Gade's "Tango Jalousie" in the middle. Modern lyricism from a cellist-composer, Giovanni Sollima, set the stage for the Franck Sonata. It's a 2005 piece written for the film "Il bell'Antonio," and is full of delicate yet plaintive slides and portamento links, sometimes  in octaves, that only a cellist with exquisite control could manage. A final slow glissando, ascending upward in diminishment to sheer nothingness, signaled as well as anything the rare perfection the recital treated us to.

Ma left his cello backstage for the duo's first curtain call.  When he came back with the instrument for a second bow, the roar from the crowd was like something you might hear in a sports stadium. The encore, Edward Elgar's "Salut d'amour," was Ma's salute to his British pianist, who heads back home today upon last night's completion of their tour. Central Indiana clearly felt privileged to wave farewell.


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