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Songs from the Arc of Life
Yo-Yo Ma (cello)
Kathryn Stott (piano)
rec. Mechanics Hall, Worcester, Massachusetts, 28-31 March 2015
SONY CLASSICS 88875 103162 [67.56]

It is almost a commonplace to say so nowadays, but the lack of adventure on the part of the major record companies is becoming endemic. This is on a scale that is amazing when one considers what they have given us in the past. They are becoming increasingly intent on recycling their back catalogues - admittedly welcome, and a valuable exercise in its own right. As a result their new releases are painfully reliant on what is perceived by their bean-counters to be guaranteed commercial success. The artists, increasingly few, who they have under exclusive contract, are thereby confined to the most basic repertoire with little chance to move outside the well-trodden paths that have ensured sales in the past. This denies us the chance to hear them in more obscure works to which they could indubitably lend lustre. This conservative approach to new releases is rendered even more obvious when you look at the listings from what used to be described as the minor independent companies. Their willingness to explore new avenues constitutes by far the greater amount of interest for those who already have recordings of the core repertoire and are looking for something different.

This recital by Yo-Yo Ma and Kathryn Stott would seem to fall firmly into the category of a disc conceived with commercial sales alone in mind, and be damned to those collectors whose tastes extend further afield. The contents, including such works as Saint-Saëns’s ubiquitous swan, the Bach/Gounod Ave Maria, Brahms Lullaby and so on, certainly seem to confirm that impression. We already have in the catalogues, for example, Yo-Yo Ma’s recordings of the Saint-Saëns, the Fauré Papillon and the arrangement of the Gershwin piano prelude. Surprisingly some of the more obvious items here have not been available previously in versions by the cellist; and he and Kathryn Stott have managed to slip some rarities past the commercially savvy producers, so the results do have a value over and above the simple desire to please the fans. It is excellent, for example, to have the performance of the neglected Delius Romance which so far as I am aware Ma has never recorded before. This is one of the only three tracks on this CD which runs to over five minutes, however, and the shortness of the items does tend to create a rather bitty impression, with Fauré the only composer represented by more than one piece. The jump in styles from Elgar’s Salut d’amour to the arrangement of the Gershwin First Prelude is particularly unfortunate.

Apart from the Delius Romance, the only other two pieces on this disc which run to any length are the movement from Messiaen’s Quartet for the end of Time, a particularly enterprising selection for this generally ‘popular’ recital (and superbly performed), and the item drawn from Giovanni Sollima’s music for a remake of the film ll bell’Antonio, the only work here from a living composer. Sollima is himself a cellist, and his writing obviously suits the instrument superbly. The music itself is a rapt contemplation of a long-drawn melody, which in the central section builds up a real head of steam with some beautifully inflected turns which evoke Jewish idioms; and it doesn’t pall or seem a moment too long. It sent me in search of the complete film score, but the only recording I could find was that of the music for the 1960 original film by Piero Piccioni, which was decidedly less impressive. It would be excellent if the whole of Sollima’s score could be made available.

Otherwise this disc is really a recital of encore pieces, any of which would be welcome at the end of a recital of more substantial items but which seemed to me somewhat indigestible en masse. I paused the disc a few times during my listening, returning to it again a while later, which allowed my palate to clear between pieces. It need hardly be said that Yo-Yo Ma and Kathryn Stott perform all these items beautifully. The recorded acoustic also is superb, and the recording is superbly managed. The cello is naturally forward in the balance, since the piano parts here are mostly fairly straightforward accompaniments. Stott is well in the picture when necessary, as in the tango Jalousie by Jacob Gade where Ma is delightfully sly and almost sleazy in his delivery of the well-known melody.

The booklet notes are quite substantial, consisting for the most part of a conversation between the two performers in which they discuss each individual work in some detail. For some of the song arrangements we are also provided with translations of the original texts. What we are not told is who was responsible for the arrangements which feature so strongly in the recital, but I presume they are the work of Yo-Yo Ma himself. They are all well managed, the Sibelius song being particularly effective and the Debussy even more so.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

Track listing
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)/Charles GOUNOD (1818-1893)
Ave Maria [2.43]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Lullaby, Op.49/4 [1.50]
Antonin DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Songs my mother taught me, Op.55/4 [1.57]
Gabriel FAURÉ (1845-1924)
Papillon, Op.77 [2.49]
Après un rêve, Op.7/1 [2.40]
Jacob GADE (1879-1963)
Tango Jalousie [2.49]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Vanitas Vanitatum, Op.102/1 [3.03]
Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Was it a dream?, Op.37/4 [2.17]
Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Salut d’amour, Op.12 [2.40]
George GERSHWIN (1898-1937)
Prelude No 1 [1.51]
Frederick DELIUS (1862-1934)
Romance for cello and piano [6.25]
Fritz KREISLER (1875-1962)
La Gitana [3.33]
Giovanni SOLLIMA (b.1962)
Il bell’Antonio: Tema III [7.35]
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
The swan [2.54]
Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)
The wounded heart, Op.34/1 [2.30]
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Valse sentimentale, Op.51/6 [2.17]
Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
Quartet for the end of Time: Louange a l’éternité de Jésus [10.18]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Beau soir [2.31]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Ave Maria, Op.52/6 [4.15]



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