Paris: La Belle Époque is a stylish disc of French fin de siècle music as rendered by popular cellist Yo-Yo Ma with the help of pianist and ace chamber musician Kathryn Stott. Despite the milieu evoked by the front cover, this program consists of more seriously minded French music of the day and avoids the parlor and cabaret fare in fashion in Paris at that time. Paris: La Belle Époque has excellent notes by Phillip Huscher that deftly tie the music to the works of author Marcel Proust and to the world surrounding him.
Naturally the medium here is mostly "violin works played on the cello," although César Franck approved a transcription of the famous Sonata in A major for violin & piano and this seems to be what Ma plays here; the other three works are heard in transcriptions Ma has made on his own, and these are tastefully done. Ma's playing in these works is not terribly deep or profound, but profundity is not the main issue in this music -- Massenet's Meditation from Thaïs, Saint-Saëns' Havanaise -- rarely heard on the cello -- and Fauré's Sonata No. 1 in A major for violin and piano, Op. 13. Some players do take these pieces to strong emotional heights and depths, and indeed the booklet note spells out in caps a phrase borrowed from Proust: "awakening the mysterious depths of our soul." As good as Paris: La Belle Époque is, it does not quite take the listener to "mysterious depths" -- emotionally it is a little cold. Stott plays right along with Ma, conquering the difficult passagework in the second movement of the Franck Sonata as if it's no big deal, but in slower passages doesn't do much to vary her approach, such as in the opening measures of the third movement of the same work.
Paris: La Belle Époque is intimate drawing room music that is well played and sensitively recorded. It is a disc well suited for an afternoon tea or any type of semi-formal social event, but also would prove a nice fit with activities such as reading or relaxation.