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Yo-Yo Ma's Greatest Hits

Yo-Yo Ma:
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Schubert, Arpeggione Sonata (E. Ax)

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Shostakovich, Cello Sonata (E. Ax)

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Soul of the Tango (Piazzola, Tango Suite)

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Obrigado Brazil (Gismonti, Bodas de Prata), with K. Stott

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Paris: La Belle Époque (Franck sonata), with K. Stott
As Washington Performing Arts Society President Neale Perl pointed out, Monday evening's recital at the Kennedy Center was cellist Yo-Yo Ma's 23rd appearance sponsored by the organization. WPAS returns again and again to someone like Ma, not only because one can be reasonably assured that he will deliver a fine recital but also because he can sell out a space like the Concert Hall, even though it is arguably too large for the sort of performance he will give. As the evening was also the occasion for the WPAS Fall Celebration gala, with the concert as its centerpiece, Ma offered a selection of some of the greatest hits from his prolific discography. If you purchased the discs shown at left, the program could be reassembled in your MP3 player.

It was all beautifully played, with an emphasis on ethereal sound and gentle rather than forceful interpretation. The opening of Schubert's sonata for arpeggione (A minor, D. 821) set the tone, almost too soft to be heard, followed by a subtle folk accelerando on the second theme. All the reference points for the form to be understood were subtly marked, especially the drawn-out return to the recapitulation. The second movement showed off Ma's luscious, broadly shaped legato, full of ardor. If Ma has a weakness, it is an avoidance of rawer, bravura sound, as in the spiccato passages in the third movement. English pianist Kathryn Stott, who has partnered with Ma on recent recordings (instead of Emanuel Ax), was technically proficient if perhaps too subservient to her more famous counterpart.

The high point of the program was the gloriously decadent Shostakovich D minor sonata, op. 40, a piece that the average listener would not identify as belonging to the dreaded, dissonant oeuvre of the modern era. Ma's reading seemed to take off from where the Schubert ended, in long-lined lyricism and a first-movement tempo definitely on the non troppo side of Allegretto. The scherzo was a danse macabre of skeletons and machine-gun motifs, while the somber folk recitative of the third movement featured a piano interlude of graveyard bells. The fourth movement's turn toward the more bitter tone often associated with Shostakovich was communicated well, especially in the spiteful, ultrafast dance-like section. The first half probably should have ended there, but the duo pressed on with a movement from Astor Piazzolla's Tango Suite (no. 4, Le Grand Tango), an extremely appealing work that is more or less the Argentinian equivalent of Ravel's La Valse. The tone was tragic but intensely contained, exactly the mood of the tango.

Other Reviews:

Mark Swed, The well-traveled Ma's world of elegance (Los Angeles Times, November 20)

Richard Scheinin, Yo-Yo Ma's soulful touch (San Jose Mercury News, November 17)

Daniel Ginsberg, Yo-Yo Ma in Recital: Intimate Music in Front of Thousands (Washington Post, November 14)

Susan Isaacs Nisbett, Yo-Yo Ma thrills Hill audience (Ann Arbor News, November 12)

Larry Fuchsberg, Yo-Yo Ma - and pianist - shined at Schubert Club's 125th (Minneapolis Star Tribune, November 10)

Donald Rosenberg, Cellist Yo-Yo Ma and pianist Kathryn Stott command stage in Akron (Cleveland Plain Dealer, November 9)

Elaine Guregian, Yo-Yo Ma continues to astound (Akron Beacon Journal, November 9)
The second half opened with a selection from Ma's Brazilian disc, Bodas de Prata & Quatro Cantos by Egberto Gismonti (b. 1947), a set of character pieces ranging from the atmospheric and melancholy to more muscular pop-inspired song. It was a tasty but non-filling introduction to César Franck's A major sonata, featured on Ma and Stott's latest recording of French sonatas. This is actually yet another adaptation of the composer's famous violin sonata, played here after we just missed the adaptation of the same sonata for flute last week. Again the first movement's tempo was moderate, creating a soft, introspective character, contrasted by the wild-eyed intensity of the furtive, breathless second movement. All night long, Ma's many excursions onto the highest string of his exquisite Davidoff Stradivarius, made in 1712 and previously owned by Jacqueline du Pré, were most beautiful when a degree of caution was observed. Apply too much pressure, and the tone could become strident, as it did sometimes in the last movement. At the end of this sumptuous meal, three encores were offered by Ma and Stott, like gracious hosts who seem to know that you need just one more Armagnac to keep warm on the walk home: cello-piano arrangements of Elgar's Salut d'Amour, Gershwin's first piano prelude, and Saint-Saëns' Swan from Carnival of the Animals.

The next WPAS classical concert features Dmitri Hvorostovsky (November 20, 8 pm), putting all of his sebaceous charm to use in a program called From Russia with Love, with the Academy of Choral Art and the Moscow Chamber Orchestra, in the Music Center at Strathmore. It will be just like his last WPAS recital, but even more so.

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