Clasical: Tango the way Ma makes it

Yo-Yo Ma Royal Festival Hall, London

Cellists have rarely been crowd-pleasers, but when Steven Isserlis donned Tavener's Protecting Veil and Yo-Yo Ma partied with Piazzolla, people suddenly started to notice. Ma's Thursday night recital opened to Stravinsky and climaxed to Piazzolla's dazzlingly discursive Grand Tango.

The recital's first half was dominated, musically speaking, by Brahms's heroic Second Cello Sonata, where Ma's lean but small tone strained to out-sing Kathryn Stott's over-prominent piano. The first movement was too fast for comfort, a miscalculation that the hall's unsympathetic acoustic served to exaggerate. Ma's agility was more seen than heard: he'd gaze skyward while his left hand scaled the cello's neck. Brahms's Allegro vivace needs a bigger tone, richer characterisation and more powerful projection, though the Allegro passionata prompted spectacular wrist-work. But if the showman upstaged the musician in the first and third movements, the Adagio affettuoso witnessed a welcome spot of self-communing, with a streamlined thread of tone and some throbbing pizzicatos.

The concert had opened with Stravinsky's Suite Italienne. Again, Stott's virtuosity was more audible than Ma's. The recital's second half kept to the 20th century, with Ma's skilful transcription of Bernstein's Clarinet Sonata offering most in the way of imagination, tonal variety and phrasal sophistication. This was Ma shining resplendent, though his harmless re- working of Gershwin's Piano Preludes saw him loosening up for the last lap.

The closing Le Grand Tango of the Piazzolla sequence was page after page of musical heavy-breathing, just the job for a wine bar, perhaps with cello and accordion and some subtle percussion - but for cello and piano? Hundreds looked on silently where there should have been laughter, dancing, seduction: it was the perfect case-study of a musical mistranslation, although the sheer energy and rhythmic thrust prompted a standing ovation. One wondered what people were applauding - the music, the performance or the concept of a classical artist tackling up-beat cross-over. I'd wager the latter, though Elgar's Salut d'amour and Manuel de Falla's "Polo" (the last of his Seven Popular Spanish Songs) were almost as well received. But only almost. Ma and Stott were recalled twice, then we all turned to leave. If the encore had been more Piazzolla, it might have been a different story.

Robert Cowan

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