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Review: Yo-Yo Ma & Kathryn Stott, 'Songs From The Arc Of Life'

Cover art for <em>Songs From The Arc Of Life. </em>
Cover art for Songs From The Arc Of Life.

When it comes to artistic partnerships, there's a lot to be said for the fireworks of musicians joining together for the first time. But there's another kind of collaboration that can yield profound pleasure: a recording with two artists who know each other deeply, in a relationship that has unfolded over years or even decades.

That's the case with world-famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma and pianist Kathryn Stott, who have been playing together since 1984. Over those many years, they've developed a wonderfully warm and mutually responsive musical partnership that has blossomed in performances that are both generous and incisive.

On Songs From The Arc Of Life, released just a few weeks shy of the cellist's 60th birthday, Ma and Stott attempt to sketch out the emotional trajectories of a lifetime. Each track is meant to reflect a signpost of a life well lived, from the fleeting pleasures of childhood through the stormy depths of youthful passion to the power of enduring unspeakable trauma. (Perhaps it's no coincidence that the album's title echoes a Stevie Wonder classic.)

Songs From The Arc Of Life is full of such familiar treasures as the Brahms Lullaby, Saint-Saëns' The Swan and both the Bach/Gounod and the Schubert Ave Maria. But this album also includes some more unusual finds — including selections new to Ma and Stott — like Debussy's bittersweet Beau Soir, as well as a section of contemporary Italian composer and cellist Giovanni Sollima's score to the recent film The Handsome Antonio (a remake of the 1960 classic starring Marcello Mastroianni) that's a perfect sonic distillation of loneliness.

But the heart of the album lies in an unexpected place: the achingly beautiful, impossibly transcendent Louange à l'éternité de Jésus (Praise to the eternity of Jesus), from Olivier Messiaen's Quartet For The End Of Time. Written while Messiaen was held in a POW camp during WWII, it's a singular piece of music. Here, as Ma puts it, Messaien attempted "to code divine love, to describe divine love in sound" within the confines of unimaginable circumstances. While some of the other pieces on Songs From The Arc Of Life are comfortable cello favorites — lollipops, even — the presence of Louange travels somewhere more unsettling, as it pivots from the personal to the cosmic.

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Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.
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