At 58, Ma is a unique figure in the musical world: a cross between Mstislav Rostropovich and the Dali Lama. He’s probably is the most famous classical string player active today (How do all the violinists out there feel about that?) And he’s a showman – smiling broadly to his audience, or leaning back in his chair and gazing into the rafters, to commune with the composer of the moment. He may not always play every note perfectly in tune (he didn’t on this occasion), but every phrase he plays is bursting with its own special, imperative meaning.
Opening with Stravinsky’s Suite Italienne – an arrangement for cello and piano of music from the composer’s ballet Pulcinella – Ma was in fine form from the first note. In his hands, the Suite was a cornucopia of contrasting affects: charming, manic, tender, mysterious, ironic, and many others. Ma looked to be having great fun with this music, and his bright sound easily filled the hall.
The Three Pieces that followed proved an attractive group: all Latin-American, they are arrangements of short compositions by Heitor Villa-Lobos, Ástor Piazzolla and Camargo Guarnieri, respectively. It was here – especially in “Oblivion,” by Piazzolla – that Ma could display his singing tone. However, it was also here that Stott was sometimes a little too loud, swamping Ma’s sensitive playing.
There was more music with a Latin flavour: De Falla’s 7 Canciones Populares Españolas. Here, both players found plenty of colour and drama in these arrangements. But once again, the balance seemed a little off: whenever Ma leaned towards delicacy, and Stott produced a bigger sound. Were they aware of how the piano was dominating in the hall – or was this their intention? Perhaps the piano lid should have been raised on the short stick, rather than the long one.
The last movement of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, “Louange à l’Éternité de Jésus,” works well as a stand-alone recital piece – and for me this was the evening’s most memorable performance. Ma and Stott built a long arc, starting from a place of utter calm and tranquility. Playing with a jaw-dropping legato, Ma gradually increased intensity to the point where the whole hall seemed bathed in radiance. What a pity that Toronto’s “Bronchitis Brigade” was out in full force, damaging the movement’s hushed conclusion with their noisy coughing!
Brahms’ Sonata No. 3 in D Minor, was the big piece on the program. And it was here that the balance issues between the two musicians became most problematic. Ma seemed to favour a furtive, understated interpretation, full of sighing phrases – but Stott’s approach was bold and aggressive. Either approach would have worked well, if only the two players could have agreed more often on which one to pursue. Fortunately, their divergent ideas did merge from time to time, to excellent effect, as in the fire-and-brimstone passages in the final movement.
© Colin Eatock 2013