Yo-Yo Ma and pianist Kathryn Stott proved last night that “it takes two to tango”. Their Pro Musica recital at the Maison Symphonique featured transcriptions for cello and piano with a pronounced Latin-American/Spanish accent, including transcriptions from the works of Villa-Lobos, Piazzolla, Guarnieri and Manuel de Falla, as well as non-hispanic offerings including Stravinsky’s Suite italienne, Messiaen’s “Louange à l’éternité de Jésus” from the Quatuor pour la fin du temps and Brahms’ Sonata for Violin and Piano no. 3 in D minor.

Surprisingly, considering the sheer wattage that Yo-Yo Ma’s name brings to any concert bill, it was not his playing alone that stole the show; nor was it the inspired and intelligent performance of Kathryn Stott. Rather, the magic of this performance existed in the act of collaboration between the two artists: no leader, but two musicians creating in the moment, each reacting joyfully to the ideas and caprices of the other – a standard description of chamber music perhaps, but one so rarely borne out in concert! One first senses their close friendship in a publicity photo showing Ma and Stott arm in arm, appearing to share a joke. This impression was confirmed as they emerged on stage relaxed, warm and friendly, then doubly confirmed as the first notes began in perfect synchrony almost before either had fully sat down.

A playful, nearly mischievous, interaction dominated Stravinsky’s Suite italienne, adapted from the composer’s ballet score to Pulcinella. Elements of Baroque style and neoclassicism feature prominently, but the performance highlighted moments of humour, quirky turns of phrase and surprising dynamics over those more staid characteristics. Despite the refinement of both players, the importance of note accuracy and perfect playing was displaced by that of rhythmic vivacity, unity of gesture, ensemble and musical intent. The effect was that of a well-told joke, or a beautifully executed dance. In other words, much more visceral than what we often expect from a musical performance.

Spaces and connections between movements tended to be well thought out, lending an aspect of completeness to a programme which featured many collections of short numbers. This was most apparent in a set of transcriptions under the name of “Three Pieces”. Villa-Lobos’ Alma Brasileira, Piazzolla’s Oblivion and Guarnieri’s Dansa Negra were woven together into a continuous thread so that it was difficult to tell where one ended and the next began, other than the subtle shifting of rhythms between samba and tango. Oblivion, transcribed from an orchestral score, featured stunning moments of impossibly stretched phrases, Stott happily indulging Ma’s generous and broad bow strokes.

De Falla’s Siete canciones populares never missed the vocal part for which it was originally intended - the sure sign of a good transcription - and displayed a greater level of subtle give and take than the previous selections. The Brahms Sonata in D minor for violin (not cello!) and piano was compelling and exciting throughout. The truly integrated nature of the parts, combined with the lower tessitura of the cello, made for a challenging texture, but the irresistible pull of each phrase as performed more than made up for it. Particularly beautiful was the Adagio, in which Ma’s lyrical gift was on full display, supported and made complete by Stott’s rich voice-leading. Messiaen's “Louange à l’éternité de Jésus” was less effective than it might have been, with an unusually brisk tempo and frequent breaks in the normally taut melodic line. This piece should seem anything but easy, and that sense of struggle was missing. 

Specifics aside, the element of shared musical and performative intent was what made this recital special. Artists too often overlook the conviviality that has always been so important in the chamber music repertoire. Yo-Yo Ma and Kathryn Stott embody this conviviality in a way that justifies, and makes relevant, the act of live performance in a culture where collaboration is increasingly devalued in favour of individual virtuosity.