The Celebrity Series of Boston, founded by impresario Aaron Richmond in 1938, lives on very much in the musical present, and the organization patently eyes the far horizon. As active New England presenters of solo and small ensemble concerts, not to mention of larger orchestral and ballet events, they’ve burgeoned through their seven decades and kept up a long-term mission of placing the day’s most visible performers before greater Boston audiences. This past Friday evening, March 26, listeners in sold-out Symphony Hall welcomed one of the planet’s best-known music figures, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and his frequent concert and album duo partner, excellent UK pianist Kathryn Stott. The word “accompanist” tends not to figure when mention of the two appears in print, for reasons that became clear. Ma’s exceptional collaborative energy and his unfailing acknowledgment of those with whom he plays is as attractive as his proven musicianship. Stott’s and Ma’s joint presence on stage offered the thousand some listeners an unaccustomed opportunity to set aside oft times distracting star parameters and simply witness shared music-making. Exemplary concert energy like this is as seductive as it is uncommon.
Were the stone memorializing the shade of a vanished string instrument to bear a single, non-Ozymandian epitaph, having Schubert as its author guarantees that the few remaining examples of said evolutionary cul de sac will be warmed by music lovers’ fond gazes through the museum glass. Johann Georg Staufer placed ads in Viennese journals for his six-stringed “guitarre d’amour” in 1823, reports informative annotator Steven Ledbetter, then had colleague Vinzenz Schuster write and publish a mode d’emploi for it. Herr Schuster took the one step that guaranteed immortality, and great affection, for Staufer’s genetic sport. He asked a 26-year-old native of the same city, one Franz Peter Schubert, who enjoyed renown in salons and among younger musicians, to write a demonstration piece. The result, of course, was the heavenly Sonata in A, D. 821, for arpeggione and piano. Four modern recordings of the sonata pair the delicate original string with beautiful, transparent Viennese grands of Schubert’s time. Two of these are Klaus Stork & Alfons Kontarsky, DGG Archiv, 1974, and Nicolas Deletaille & Paul Badura Skoda, Fuga Libera, 2006. If you wish to see this strikingly lovely instrument, it is well worth going to here, where enterprising Belgian cellist Nicolas Deletaille has posted good photos of his own modern arpeggione.
Today we hear the Schubert on viola and, much more often, on cello. It lies high on the latter, which suited Mr. Ma’s always marvelous ease in the cellistic stratosphere, and visited lower reaches, generally chordally, often enough to signal the latent power of the modern cello. The relatively spare piano part has always come off less successfully on today’s big, tonally unsubtle concert grands. It was thanks to Ms. Stott’s remarkably delicate, subtle touch that the nine-foot Steinway D edged toward clangor in just a few big moments. The two performers’ sheer collaborative melding, perhaps more overt on Mr. Ma’s part, made for a seamless and decidedly inward-looking unfolding of this favorite chamber work. So much so that, to this listener, the effect was effete, or precious. We heard every line, played with care and commitment, yet the sum left me with the fast-vanishing taste of ladyfingers, not of the richness of Guglhupf.
Things changed dramatically when the duo threw themselves wholly and grippingly into Dmitri Shostakovich’s 1934 Sonata in D, Op. 40. The instruments, for one thing, are more naturally matched in this kaleidoscopic, sometimes mordent fling with the vanished Romantic and the craggy Modern. Ms. Stott, who is as close to a note-perfect performer as one is likely to hear today, focused remarkably on the sheer clarity of the score, somehow casting the patrician, sometimes downright lyrical utterances of the cello in a revealing yet cosseting light. The titanic and quixotic, then minuscule statements outthrust by the piano left the keening agonies and rhetorical asides of the cello plenty of room to be felt and heard. No other composer could have created four such emphatic, wrenchingly evocative movements. The utter investment of cellist and pianist came through magnificently. Especially touching, perhaps as in the caressing of raw nerves, were the tragically opposed instrumental personas cohabiting the third movement, a wintry and plaintive Largo. The brilliant and taxing final Allegro at last permitted Ma and Stott to assemble, masterfully, all the contrasting elements into vertically powerful sweep and irresistible momentum.
We should mention that the duo stayed in the music to an unusual extent. Movements were begun attacca or close to it. This largely preempted catarrhal interjections and posterior adjustments out where all sat, with the exception of ill-timed coughs in a few final sustains. To keep everyone involved in the music making is a special gift, one for which Mr. Ma has often, and justly, been praised. Pianist and cellist stayed on stage between pieces, too, permitting the listeners to linger in impressions of the piece just ended while preparing for the new soundscape about to emerge. For this rare blessing, profound and cordial thanks.
Astor Piazzola defined new and far-off possibilities for Argentina’s national dance form, flew toward them with elegance and elegiac lyricism, and periodically swept past his own newly sketched modernisms to declaim further, seemingly inevitable expressive solutions for the tango. Heavens, how could the century-and-a-half-old dance wither with such a pathbreaker proclaiming its vigorous survival and self-reinvention?! Now thoroughly warmed up, along with their keenly participatory audience, Ma and Stott whipped into a virtuosic but also delightfully relaxed evocation of Piazzola’s twelve-minute Le Grand Tango. It was written in 1982 for the late Rostropovich. The duo encouraged this parfois introvert, at times rough and street-wise score to flare into life. A tour de force from the two on stage, candy for the audience.
The Ma-Stott Arpeggione Sonata may have been overly pastel, but the next work was a compact and enchanting visit to colors from cities where snow is but a poetic construct. They lavished the same delicate shadings as in the Schubert on Egberto Gismonti’s Bodas de Prata (Silver Weddings) and his Quatro Cantos, which he wrote in collaboration with fellow Brazilian Geraldo Carneiro, a highly regarded lyricist and writer. Once again, Ms. Stott withdrew into gossamer textures, punctuated them with percussive episodes, and came tantalizingly close to matching Mr. Ma’s sinewy cantando and bar-erasing rubato. Audience excitement made itself felt in the final pages of the music, erupting afterward into noisy acclaim.
The concert proper concluded with a work that, since its publication in 1886, has been even more popular and beloved, if that’s possible, than the Schubert. César Franck, the Belgian pianist and organist who marshaled about him the figures who would sculpt France’s unrivaled musical richness in the first half of the 20th century, wrote some of the most effective concert music for organ ever penned. He left piano pieces, a few famous orchestral works, and not too many chamber scores. Among the last, the Piano Quintet and String Quartet show up in scattered ensemble programs, while one just does not come across his five (five!) piano trios outside of Belgium and francophone conservatories. Of all of Franck’s music, his Sonata in A, FWV 8, is our one commanding reminder of the man’s greatness. Yo-Yo Ma played the transcription by Jules Delsart, a renowned cellist of the composer’s generation. With Ms. Stott, he lovingly bridged the few odd places where the piano part strives to partner the cello in a complementary register. The duo’s attacca course through the four movements made them into a single, passionate statement. Listeners of our generation would no doubt give a great deal to have experienced the still talked-about performances by the violin sonata’s dedicatee, Eugène Ysaÿe, but the great warmth and rapt weaving of melodic line coming from the stage left us in no doubt of the success of this score as adoptive cello music. Ms. Stott’s aura of focus and her consummate keyboard sorcery offered a visual contrast to Mr. Ma’s mobile torso, head, and arms, a study in sensitivity and collaborative communication. Many pages of this score invite big pianism, a sort of hyper-dynamic forte, that leads my inner eye to populate mythic emergency rooms with the ravaged string parts of imbalanced performances. In Ms. Stott’s hands, the piano part never scarred the sometimes submissive, now and again heroic cello lines, played by Mr. Ma with refinement and full commitment. This was a masterfully poised and moving performance.
The duo gave two encores, one an unabashed orgy of piano licks with amusing, semi-audible violoncello commentary, the other a famous Ma solo. Cesar Camargo Mariano (b. 1943), a Brasilian who has made his home here since 1994, is a national treasure at home. His catchy and ostinato-driven little Cristal is rhythmically treacherous, for the piano and for any accompanying instrument emboldened to join in, and detonates small, entertaining “Ah!!” moments amid devilish, rhetorical modulations and mini-episodes. Kathryn Stott ended it in a chamber firestorm, with Mr. Ma self-effacingly handing off all kudos in her direction, not without impish glee. Mr. Ma concluded the evening with a piece he has always played with delicacy and enfolding warmth, the third movement in St.-Saëns’s Carnaval des Animaux, from the same year as the Franck. His Le Cygne left listeners with a fine sense of Yo-Yo Ma the incomparable soloist, so discriminatingly supported by Ms. Stott that, indeed, we glimpsed orchestral tapestry.
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It is normal to place performers in the center of the stage, the long tail of the piano extending well to house right of them. This, and our modern-era custom of orienting grands for visual alignment, rather than to best suit their acoustic nature, imparts a distant and often shallow character to piano sound. The middle, especially, can be hard and dimensionless, while the great depth and richness emanating from the bottom two octaves cannot be appreciated by anyone not seated in the right third of the hall. It would fly very much in the face of custom to position an instrument with the tail somewhat more downstage, of course. The striking sonic results, though, permit listeners throughout the entire hall to experience the full beauty and subtlety of outstanding playing like Ms. Stott’s. In my experience as a location (non-studio) recording engineer, angled placement of the piano fully engages the instrument’s sound production in stage, proscenium, and hall acoustics, to an extent that succeeds in astonishing experienced musicians. Listening in my left-hand Symphony Hall seat yet again confirmed my strong preference for being on the right, where I can hear the full range of what the pianist’s after. After all, this is about taking in and enjoying the totality of the music, rather than a primarily visual experience. But, I acknowledge, mine may be a minority view