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Yo-Yo Ma/ Kathryn Stott, Barbican Hall, London

12.15.08
Yo-Yo Ma
The Independent

They sit closer than do most duo recitalists on the concert platform reflecting the now intimate nature of their musical partnership.

Indeed there was one note of Schubert's "Arpeggione" Sonata in A minor where a throw-away pizzicato in the cello and a single staccato quaver in the right hand of the piano chimed in such a way as to belie the fact that there was absolutely no eye contact. Pure musical telepathy: Yo-Yo Ma and Kathryn Stott have it.

In the first movement of the Schubert their easy rapport made the music making sound so relaxed it was almost horizontal. Embellishments tripped off Ma's bow so deftly that it was impossible to imagine that he had actually fingered them while Stott's graceful touch kept the rhythmic elements buoyant. The balance - or you might say focus-pulling - between the two instrumental voices was perfection from my seat in the hall with both players finding countless ways of nuancing their sound so as to let the harmony shine through. The songful slow movement suggested that Schubert's wanderer had momentarily paused to reflect on happier times.

And so to the early Shostakovich Sonata in D minor where the lyric ideas were made to sound more akin to Schubert than one might have thought possible. Ma's sound never quite reflected the Russianism of the musical dialect though the gritty gopak of the scherzo kicked up dust, drifting eerily into bizarre glissando harmonics in the trio. Ghostly premonitions here of the soulful Largo where all kinds of subtle half-shades brought a sombre reality to the work's Tchaikovskian reveries.

No eroticism there but plenty in Piazzolla's Le Grand Tango which Ma and Stott played like seasoned dancing partners alternating between sexy insinuation and a stomping audacity. And there was more sultry South Americana in the shape of Geraldo Carneiro and Egberto Gismonti's exquisitely pellucid songs without words, "Bodas de Prata" and "Quatro Cantos". Ma and Stott infused them with the free spirit of improvisation, Stott's own embellishments indistinguishable from the arranger's.

But their game was raised to new highs with the Franck Sonata in A, formerly for violin but overwhelmingly claimed for the cello by players like Ma. The discreet classicism of the opening movement quickly dropped all pretence of formality in this impassioned performance, the torrential scherzo notching up the intensity for both players but drawing from Ma that aspirational singing tone that so totally reflects the generosity of the man.