Cellist Yo-Yo Ma reminds me of pianist Arthur Rubinstein. Other than an absolute command of their respective instruments, both artists have such charisma that they only have to walk into a room before an audience would burst into exuberant cheers and applause. However, whereas Rubinstein walks into a stage with the demeanor of a benevolent king before his subject (this is NOT a criticism of Mr. Rubinstein), Ma is much more self-effacing, greeting and smiling at the audience as if he is running into them at the corner store. One never gets the sense that he takes for granted that a sell-out audience is waiting to hear him, The-Greatest-Cellist-In-The World, play the cello. The audience never feels the attitude that, “I’m Yo-Yo Ma, and you’re not.” I almost get the feeling that he is pleasantly surprised to see so many people turning out for his performance.
The distinguished cellist played a recital in Vancouver yesterday afternoon with English pianist Kathryn Stott, and the lovely sounds of the performance is still reverberating in my mind and ears a day later. Such is Ma’s popularity everywhere that stage seats had to be added to accommodate the capacity crowds.
Ma and Stott began their recital with Igor Stravinsky’s Suite Italienne, music adapted from the composer’s ballet Pulcinella. The word “charming” is not usually associated with the music of the Russian composer, but the Suite Italienne is extremely charming, full of beauty, wit, and exuberance. From the first notes, the rapport between the two artists was apparent, as well as the joy they convey in playing together. Mr. Ma’s cello sound continues to be a wonder to the ear. In the intimate ending of the third movement (“Air”), he drew such a sustained beauty in the sound that it almost seemed that his bow is ten-foot long. Throughout the afternoon, I felt that Ma and the cello ceased to be separate entities, that they had become one.
The programme continued with a set of three pieces by Brazilian and Argentinian composers – Heitor Villa-Lobos’s Alma Brasileira, Astor Piazzolla’s Oblivion, and Camargo Guarnieri’s Dansa Negra. For me, the highlight of the set was Piazzolla’s Oblivion, where Ma’s cello sound entered so softly, as if from nothing, by magic.
Manuel de Falla’s Siete Canciones Populares Españolas, transcribed from a set of the composer’s popular vocal works. Once again, collaboration between cellist and pianist was flawless, with Stott being in every sense an equal to Ma’s artistry.
As with so many of his other works, Olivier Messiaen’s Louange à Éternité de Jésus, part of the composer’s wartime masterpiece - Quartet for the End of Time, reveals his deep Catholic faith. This (deliberately) static music truly gives the sense of time standing still, with repeated chords on the piano, and a powerful melody of great beauty and dignity played by the cello. The majestic phrases represent the eternity of Jesus as “The Word”. Ma and Stott gave a stunning, magisterial, mesmerizing reading of this work, and set a record for perhaps the longest silence afforded by the Vancouver audience before applause commenced.
The recital ended on a high note, with César Franck’s Sonata in A Major for violin and piano. Again, from the introspective opening movement to the stormy second movement, from the recitative-like third movement to the joyous canon in the fourth movement, Ma and Stott truly collaborated to give an unusually satisfying reading of this perennially popular work. Perhaps part of the success of the performance was that it was so much more than a cello recital with piano accompaniment, but a collaborative effort between two artists who obviously enjoy playing together and appreciating each other’s gifts. Two artists as equal partners working to bring the music alive. And did they ever bring the music alive yesterday afternoon!
Once again, we must thank Leila Getz and the Vancouver Recital Society for bringing artists such as Ma and Stott to Vancouver. I believe one of the reasons artists such as Murray Perahia, Yefim Bronfman, Andras Shiff, and Yo-Yo Ma keep returning to Vancouver is that they started performing on our stages before they became household names. It is thanks to the vision of Mrs. Getz that we now hear the same artists as audiences in New York and London. Let us hope that VRS will always be in a position to bring to our stages great artists of today as well as tomorrow.