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With Yo-Yo Ma on Center Stage, Who Needs Violins?

Cellist Presents Recital of French Music for Sold-Out Crowd at Symphony Hall

By Jeremy Baskin

Arts Editor

Yo-Yo Ma, cello with Kathryn Stott, piano

Symphony Hall

Jan. 22, 8 p.m.

Though Yo-Yo Ma’s Boston performances are not rare, they are still major events. Last Wednesday, Ma gave a recital at Symphony Hall with pianist Kathryn Stott of romantic and 20th century French music.

The concert, presented by the FleetBoston Celebrity Series, featured an even mix of music originally written for cello and transcriptions of violin music. Except for a few awkward moments, you’d never notice that the Faure Violin Sonata in A Major was actually a violin sonata.

With so much cello music around, it’s interesting to wonder why cellists often play transcriptions of violin sonatas. There are volumes more violin sonatas than cello sonatas, but the cello is pretty well endowed with solo repertoire compared to its tenor friends, the French horn and bassoon.

Perhaps cellists have a desire to prove that they are technically able to play the hardest passages that violinists have been given to tackle. It could be a grass-is-greener situation made all the more interesting if one considers how many young violinists fall in love with the cello and its rich, warm, melancholy timbre.

Last Wednesday night, Ma ended any doubt in the minds of scores of aspiring violinists by showing them that their music couldn’t sound any better than it did when it came out of his cello. And the ultimate reason in favor of playing violin music on the cello, or more generally playing transcriptions, is that instruments are simply the media employed to produce the sound, but it is the musician who conveys the music.

Coordination in Debussy Too Perfect

The program began with Debussy’s Sonata for Cello and Piano, a typical impressionist composition whose outer movements feature sweet melodies and whose middle movement is hair-raising in its lack of resolution, which features pizzicatos and other acrobatics.

Here, the coordination between Ma and Stott was so perfect that one is left to wonder how many times they’ve performed this work. It seems absurd to complain about everything not only being in place but also played musically, but music is not meant to be interpreted once and then memorized. If a performer’s every move, no matter how expressive, can be predicted or even appears to be prepared, then the whole performance has a somewhat canned sense to it.

Still, this sensation did not pervade the rest of the program. The most moving moment in the evening came right after the intermission, with a the performance of “Louange a l’Eternite de Jesus,” a movement from Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. In 1940, while captive in a German prison camp, Messiaen wrote this monumental chamber work, which was premiered for an audience of prisoners in early 1941. Ma and Stott gave “Louange” a performance that was heart-wrenching yet not overly sentimental.

The concert was quite balanced, as evidenced by the placement of Gabriel Faure’s romantic Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 1 in A Major at the end of the first half and Cesar Franck’s Sonata for Violin and Piano in A Major at the end of the second half. These two violin sonatas resemble each other stylistically and technically; additionally, they were composed within ten years of each other.

Both work well in their transcriptions for the cello, though the third movement of the Faure sonata had some passagework not particularly suited to a cello; even the unflappably poised Yo-Yo Ma had some intonation problems there. Stott’s piano playing was admirable, as she showed her technical prowess during these sonatas.

Equally commendable was her ability to play as Ma’s musical equal, more than a mere accompanist. This was, for sure, an evening of chamber music, which leaves us to wonder if Symphony Hall weren’t a bit on the large side for a chamber. Ma is known to prefer NEC’s more intimate Jordan Hall for chamber music, but he did sell out Symphony Hall. Economics, unfortunately, are a factor, even if they get in the way of creating the right environment for performer-spectator communication.

Though applause was delivered somewhat sparingly throughout the evening, the sellout crowd would not let the musicians leave once the Franck sonata was finished. After numerous curtain calls, the audience was indulged with two French encores, the first of them in tune with the theme of the evening: a transcription of a violin encore. Ma and Stott performed beautifully the “Meditation” from Massenet’s Thais and “The Swan” from Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals, leaving the audience with two pleasant melodies to hum on the way home.