From Russia with tango, in Symphony Hall

Yo-Yo Ma
Boston Globe

By Jeremy Eichler

Over the years, Yo-Yo Ma has stayed artistically engaged in part through his own restless curiosity and his interest in exploring distant musical cultures. For his Symphony Hall recital last night, presented by the Celebrity Series of Boston, the cellist profitably drew on those excursions outside the classical canon, incorporating music from Brazil and Argentina into an otherwise traditional program.

In his hands the departures felt seamless, and there was even one implied link bridging the otherwise disparate worlds. Shostakovich’s Cello Sonata dominated the first half of the evening, an impassioned work written in 1934, two years before the composer ran dangerously afoul of Stalin. Last night Ma and pianist Kathryn Stott delivered a robust reading full of fevered Romantic expressivity and dark tonal colorings in the first two movements and all the steely virtuosity required for the brilliant finale.

The applause after the Shostakovich was still dying down as Ma and Stott tore into Astor Piazzolla’s “Le Grand Tango,’’ a brief but densely packed tour of this composer’s expressionist tango style, commissioned by, of all people, the Russian cello titan Mstislav Rostropovich. Many classical players and ensembles have taken to Piazzolla’s works like catnip over the last decade but performances often suffer from a certain stiffness of approach. Not this one. Ma and Stott displayed a delightfully idiomatic sense of rubato as well as a feel for the rhetorical freedom that Piazzolla demonstrated with his own instrument, the bandoneon, in so many of his recordings.

After intermission, “Bodas de Prata & Quatro Cantos’’ by Egberto Gismonti and Geraldo Carneiro, was a gentle study in mood, color, and atmosphere. A transcription of the Franck Violin Sonata brought the formal program to a close. The phrasing early on was a bit bumpy but the duo settled into a fluid, songful rendition of that beautifully wistful canon that closes the sonata.

The night opened with Schubert’s “Arpeggione’’ Sonata in an eloquently understated performance, full of mellow lyricism and tonal warmth. Rather than trying to fill the vast Symphony Hall with a pressed sound, Ma played with a sense of inwardness that drew the hall to him.