Arresting marriage of man and music

French get their due at Yo-Yo Ma recital

Music Review

January 29, 2003|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

One French composer to another: "We ought to have our own music - if possible, without sauerkraut."

In that wry remark, reportedly made by Erik Satie to Claude Debussy, can be found the essence of French classical music (not to mention one reason why the French and Germans didn't get along in the old days). And in Yo-Yo Ma's searing recital Monday night at the Kennedy Center could be heard the very soul of French classical music in all its unique, sauerkraut-free beauty.

Satie's gibe, of course, had to do with all the weighty rules of harmony and structure laid down by Bach and Beethoven and the rest of that crowd, rules stretched, bent and eventually tossed out all together by a succession of brilliant French composers. It wasn't a simple case of being un-German, especially considering Cesar Franck's debt to Wagner's harmonic revolution. It was a matter of developing a way of speaking musically that was as distinctive as the French language itself, and with just as many irregular verbs.

Ma's weighty program - sonatas by Debussy, Franck and Gabriel Faure; a movement from Olivier Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time - provided an ideal lesson in this language's deeply communicative tone and style. It also reaffirmed this cellist's deeply communicative tone and style. It was an arresting marriage of man and music. Make that man and woman - Ma's pianist, Kathryn Stott, was always in synch, technically and emotionally.

Franck's A major Sonata (originally for violin) derives much of its power from the energy produced by ever-shifting chords. With the foundation in flux, struggling toward harmonic resolution, the melodies above become increasingly intense. The result is an awesome kind of passion. Ma unleashed it with waves of superbly molded phrases and a deep, warm sound. Stott's playing was likewise white-hot.

The two tapped the elegance, yearning lyricism and subtle wit of Faure's A major Sonata (also originally for violin). Ma's articulation was slightly smudgy at the start of the sprightly third movement, but he quickly regained his stride.

He and the pianist caught the freshness of Debussy's D minor Sonata, which departs from the expressive openness of Franck and Faure. Here, snippets of melody lead in unexpected, disorienting directions, often disappearing into air, to be replaced by fresh ideas that tease the ear. At once amorphous and perfectly reasoned (Debussy described it as "Pierrot angry with the moon"), the short work points the way for subsequent French composers to explore fresh nuances of melody, rhythm, texture, form.

One of those greatly influenced by Debussy was Messiaen, whose idiosyncratic music invariably revolves around what were for him simple religious truths. In the fifth movement from his Quartet, titled In Praise of the Eternity of Jesus, the cello sings a slow prayer, supported by a respectful pulse of chords from the piano. Undeterred by coughs, sneezes and dropped objects in the house, Ma and partner created a profound, spiritual calm.

The whole recital underlined Faure's philosophy: "Music exists to elevate us as far as possible from everyday existence." I didn't want to come back down.

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