Yo-Yo Ma performs Bach at the BBC Proms

Humility was message of the the cellist's Bach marathon, says Helen Wallace

Yo-Yo Ma performs Bach at the BBC Proms
Yo-Yo Ma (photo by Chris Christodoulou)

This was a first. One cellist, six cello suites, no interval and an audience of 5,000. Yo-Yo Ma, beaming as only he can, reclined back in his chair and looked heavenwards: clearly, for this Bachian odyssey, he’d be travelling Club Class.

In fact, there was to be no gilding, no glamour and no grand-standing. Playing on what sounded like gut strings, his tone was tawny, delicate, flecked with frictive texture, as far as possible from the glossy vocalisation we associate with the instrument. For all Ma’s charisma, this was an extraordinary exercise in self-effacement.

After hearing close-miked recordings or performances in resonant churches, his famous G major Prelude sounded disconcertingly naked in the Royal Albert Hall, at once vast and claustrophobic in its replete state. Ma’s strategy was to pull the listeners inwards with absolute clarity of articulation - even if it meant tempos were slower - dancing vitality and variety of phrasing, and by releasing rather than forcing the sound. His command of Bach’s language is complete: each dance was delivered in a single, miraculous train of thought; each suite beautifully shaped, the six dramatised into a whole.

Curiously, the most intense moment of the first suite came in the second Minuet, nudged into being like a fragment of memory - sad, spectral, a dream-like absorption settled over the audience.

As Ma leaned into the suspensions of the darkling D minor Sarabande, one became aware of a conversation between two voices, groping towards the light. Youthful optimism propelled the third Prelude, and he generated a thrilling flood of tone in its mammoth crescendo. The good-natured but ungainly E flat was here stately, its bourrées lit with mischievous charm.

The tuned-down C minor Suite plumbs the depths: Ma created an organ-like richness in its Prelude, contrasted by the still, small voice of its Fugue, while the Allemande seemed to float in space, untethered, visionary.

Its Sarabande was the emotional heart of the evening: in Ma’s hands, the stark unfolding was swift and quiet, its crisis unresolved, limping to an end of utter desolation. Perhaps it was real exhaustion: the Gigue that followed was heavy-footed, and he’d wrung out his cramped hands before the Suite began. Only after this suite did listeners leave a long silence.

A burst of energy brought the D major to sparkling life. Bach’s writing high on the A string here so brilliantly conjures a fresh, silvery, air-borne world. Yet, even here, the Prelude was calm, deliberate, rather than dazzling; the Sarabande boasted no ravishing cascade of chords - rather, they were touched into resonant life with the subtlest of gestures, the pay-off being cheerfully crisp gavottes and a gigue fizzing with humour. At no point did I recognise his previous recordings or performances: this was being created in the moment, for this one occasion.

After his standing ovation and numerous returns to the stage, Ma produced the unthinkable: an encore. Casals’s cry for freedom, the heart-breaking El cant dels ocells, soared with almost unbearable poignancy. He dedicated it, pointedly, to all those in ‘need of our help’. Without doubt, we were in the presence of a great musician, and a great man. One to file in the concerts of a lifetime.


Prom 68 is available to listen to on the iPlayer website and app, and highlights will be broadcast on BBC Four on Thursday 10 September at 7.30pm.

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