JS Bach: Cello Suites Nos 1-6
Yo-Yo Ma (cello)
Sony Classical 19075854652 133:05 mins (2 discs)
Yo-Yo Ma is a well-travelled musician, in every sense. The Silk Road project not only widened his cultural perspective, but also opened up his playing and musicianship. Now he returns to the Bach Suites, as a prelude to a world-wide tour. As a cellist-communicator he is second to none: few who witnessed his magisterial survey of the suites at the 2015 BBC Proms will forget it – not so much for the actual performances, which were self-effacing to a fault, but for the extraordinary sense of communal engagement he generated. Remove that electric frisson of live relationship and what remains?
This, his third complete recording, has a Zen-like serenity, a lightness of being, in spirit if not always in bow stroke. The sense of an interior dialogue is beautifully sustained, especially in the D minor and C minor preludes. And a dancing brio lights up the Gavottes, Bourrées and earthily charming Gigues. By contrast, Allemandes and Courantes are perhaps too close in character: the D major Allemande floats free, a wistful fine-spun meditation, but the Courante, while graceful, lacks energy and bite (compared to, say, Isserlis or Watkin, it can feel slack), while the Sarabande is spectral, breathy, mezzo piano. Ma always did have a light radiance to his sound, but here it can sound naked, with a guitar-like lack of depth. There are also times when his bow wavers: in the notorious E flat Prelude, for example, or the C major Prelude, whose final chords are roughly broken off, or the D major Prelude, spoiled by over-emphases that don’t always come from the music. If some movements seem untethered, missing a depth of flavour, the fluency of narrative is never in doubt. Perhaps that’s appropriate for such long lived-in performances: weathered and worn smooth over the years, their bare bones glow all the more luminously.