Yo-Yo Ma’s father, a violinist, taught his son Bach’s First Cello Suite when the latter was just four years old. So, at 63, Ma has lived with this music for almost six decades. As he says in a note to this his third – and according to him, last – recording of Bach’s six suites for solo cello, they have over that period “given me sustenance, comfort, and joy during times of stress, celebration, and loss”.
As they have to those countless numbers of us who have also lived with these works for much of our lives, whether as players, listeners or both. “Timeless” can become clichéd when describing music. But not in the case of the cello suites, written sometime either side of 1720 in Köthen, when and where the equally magical six sonatas and partitas for solo violin were also written.
And especially not when performed with as much fluency and freedom as they are here. Ma writes that “a recording is a snapshot of a moment”. Listening to all three of his recordings of these works is the aural equivalent of looking at three different photographs of a man in his twenties, in his forties and in his sixties. The pictures are as different as you’d expect – and yet they are all clearly portraits of the same person.
Fluency and freedom come with time and practice. It is therefore not surprising that in Ma’s 1984 recording – and despite having played the suites for more than 20 years already – we find him somewhat restrained, modest, a young man full of trepidation as he offers the world his thoughts and feelings about some of the greatest music ever written.
Perhaps it is the nature of the 1998 project – Ma also made six films, one per suite, in which he collaborated with artists working in other disciplines in order to gain new insights, different perspectives – but the second recording is considerably more buoyant, lighter and more varied in regard to tone and articulation.
This new set continues in that vein. But the playing feels even more spontaneous, more improvisatory, especially in the Preludes and Allemandes. The faster dances feel less abstract and more like music you could actually dance to. The sarabandes are graceful and luminous, rather than lugubrious, in their profundity.
One gets the feeling Ma’s continued collaboration with musicians working in different traditions – jazz, bluegrass and various world musics – as much as his long familiarity with the suites has resulted in such relaxed mastery.
Composition: Six suites for solo cello
Performer: Yo-Yo Ma vc
Catalogue Number: Sony Classical 19075854652