Yo-Yo Ma: Six Evolutions

Yo-Yo Ma is god. I don’t know anyone with an informed opinion who would disagree with the assessment, even atheists. There are some excellent cellists out there today, and who I would give good money to hear, but Yo-Yo is in a class by himself.

But even a god has his gods, and Yo-Yo Ma has now recorded the words of his own god three times; the first in 1983, when he was 28, and said himself at the time that he was too young; the second in 1998, when he was 43; and finally (he says) in a new version released this week, when he is 63. That music is Johann Sebastian Bach’s, six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello, which are the words god might speak to you in a still small voice inside your soul. 

I have spent the past four days listening to his performances, and have gone through the newest set three times, and individual pieces more than that. No current cellist has such a personal take on the music as Yo-Yo Ma.

(I’m going to continue with his full name. The Associated Press stylebook says that on second reference, I should just call him “Ma,” but that seems too perfunctory; “Mr. Ma,” as The New York Times would use it, sounds too much like a Bond villain, and “Yo-Yo” is out of the question, being too familiar — would a Christian call Jehovah “Joe?”)

There is something that sometimes happens with a master artist, who has so mastered his craft, that he feels free to take his work into new and personal spaces. Anne-Sophie Mutter recorded the Beethoven Violin Concerto in 1980 with the Berlin Phil and Herbert von Karajan, when she was 17; and again in 2002 with the New York Phil and Kurt Masur, when she was nearly 40. The first is a nearly pitch-perfect mainstream performance — the standard recording for anyone — and has seldom been done as well, not to say bettered. The second is so idiosyncratic that it almost seems like a different concerto. The second is deeply personal.

So, when Yo-Yo Ma made his first attempt at the Bach Unaccompanieds (I don’t mind using the nickname for the music) he seemed to want to make sure he dotted all the eyes and crossed all the tees. It is a note-perfect recording that would be a fine set for anyone who only wanted or needed one, but to me, it is oddly unsatisfying. It lacks personality. What can I say? He was young. 

I have heard Yo-Yo Ma play all six live in concert twice, and both times, the concert is deeply remembered as one of the pinnacles of my concert-going career. Live, Yo-Yo Ma earns his godhead. No one I have ever heard has come close to the depth and interiority of his interpretations. The audience sat rapt for two-and-a-half hours hearing the music, not as entertainment, but as their very personal insides brought out to see and hear. 

I have heard him live on other occasions where he would play one of the Bach Suites as an encore. Each time, they brought the house to a reverent stand-still.

Alex Ross — former music critic for The New Yorker — wrote this about a 2017 performance by Yo-Yo Ma of all six Suites at the Hollywood Bowl — a venue not known for the attention spans of its patrons: “Almost no one made a sound. Almost no one moved. When a large audience is listening intently, it creates an atmosphere that cannot be measured or recorded, only remembered. Here, it was as if music had stilled the world … he was following his natural musical rhythms, to the point that it felt less like a performance than like an interior monologue … [The audience] was under the spell of a solitary searcher in the dark.”

That is the Yo-Yo Ma I know from hearing him in person. 

(An aside: Yo-Yo Ma in person and on recording are very different. This happens sometimes. In the studio, he seems to want to be note-perfect and thought-out. His studio recordings are models of propriety and elegance, but they lack the electric presence and risk-taking of his live performances. I remember hearing him play the Dvorak concerto in Phoenix in the 1990s, and the performance nearly destroyed me, it was so deeply emotional. His studio recording is tremendous, but cannot bring me to the same tears. Yo-Yo Ma is not alone in this. For years I thought of conductor Bernard Haitink as a mere Kappelmeister, plodding along competently. I had only heard recordings. But when I heard him do the Eroica with the London Symphony Orchestra at the Salle Pleyel in Paris, he blew me away with the most powerful Eroica I ever heard live. And Kurt Masur had something of the same reputation. On CD, his performances can be competent but routine. But I heard him live with the New York Philharmonic at Avery Fisher Hall in the Verklaerte Nacht and Beethoven’s Eighth that were soul-searing. Sometimes the recording is a miserable liar.)

But what about this new recording. It is not the one for a beginner: It is too idiosyncratic. But for anyone familiar with the music, the latest version provides almost constant new insight into the music — and not only into the music, but into human existence; into the cosmos. 

One aspect of the recording merits special mention: its engineering. One reviewer said it sounds as if we are hearing the music from inside the cello. There is a presence to the sound that is closer to having the performance in the room, live with you, than any recording I have come across before. You can feel the buzz of the low notes in your very sternum. It is body-feel as well as ear-sound. 

There are details to mention. In the Prelude of the first suite, about two-thirds of the way through, the music climbs the scale up to a fermata — a held note — which is usually played as the top of a crescendo. It is the climax of the movement. Here, Yo-Yo Ma gives us instead a diminuendo, so the final held note is a hush. In the Courente of the second suite, he takes off like a house on fire, twice the speed I’m used to. He brings a sense of spontaneity to his performance that can only come from having played the music since he was four years old (yes, he began, taught by his father, from before he even began school). 

No music I know is more interior than these suites, and the older Yo-Yo Ma gets, the more Innigkeit his performance. 

His second two sets each has a gimmick. In 1989, it was a series of six short videos made in collaboration with six different film directors and various other collaborators. In some, the suites are not even heard in their entirety. (The CD release is complete, however). 

In this new set, Yo-Yo Ma makes the case for understanding the six suites as a single artistic entity, a kind of through-composed drama, over two-and-a-half hours. There’s playfulness in the first suite, grief in the second, celebration in the third, contemplation in the fourth, the weight of the world in the fifth, and in the sixth, written in a higher tessitura (originally for a smaller, five-string instrument) what can only be called transcendence. Over those two-and-a-half hours, we are given not a potpourri or melange, but a psychic and emotional journey. 

The crux of this journey is the Sarabande of the fifth suite. Only 20 bars long, it is the bearer of all the weight, the moment the tenor of the music changes. Cellist Paul Tortelier called it “an extension of silence.” Yo-Yo Ma played this movement on September 11, 2002 at the site of the World Trade Center, while the first of the names of the dead were read in remembrance on the first anniversary of the attack. 

After its depths, everything to come is a dawning of light. That Sarabande is a single line of melody, arpeggiated  and coming to rest after every phrase in a note dropped deep into a well of sadness. It is a movement that requires the uttermost from a musician. It is so simple that underplaying it will let all the power out of it, but overplaying it can sound mawkish. Yo-Yo Ma invests it with such mournful simplicity, varying his tempo by minute amounts, hardly measurable, but carrying all the expressivity. I dare you to hear this movement without weighing your life in the balance and weeping. 

His only competition for this is the man who resurrected the suites after finding a copy in a junk shop in Barcelona in 1890. Pablo Casals made the suites the core of cello repertoire; they had been before that considered mere practice etudes. Casals recorded all six between 1936 and 1939 and set the mark rather high, expressively. For me, they have never been bested, not even by Yo-Yo Ma. They are old, scratchy recordings and allowances have to be made, not only for the engineering shortcomings, but also for Casals’ technique; it was the best, even brilliant for its time, but decades of cellists working out fingerings and bowings have made later performances more natural under the fingers. But for profundity and emotion, Casals has never been bested.

Yo-Yo Ma, live, plays them in such a way that they break any separation between musician and audience. The thoughts expressed in the music are the not so much conveyed to the listener as momently co-experienced by performer and audience. It is something they discover deep in themselves, and for the moment, there is no difference between audience, cellist and Bach himself. They are at one.

When Casals plays, however, it is as if he is playing for God alone. He is alone in the room with the paraclete, discussing the Cosmos. 

Surely no real music lover can live with only one set of performances. I have Casals, all three Yo-Yo Mas, Pierre Fournier, Anner Bylsma, Janos Starker, Mstislav Rostropovich, and Jaap ter Linden. There are also many performances on YouTube, including a video of Yo-Yo Ma playing all six at the Proms in London in 2015 (link here). 

For those for whom one version is sufficient, I recommend Yo-Yo Ma’s second set. They are deep but not idiosyncratic. If you want to dive deeper, get Casals (remastered by Ward Marston on Naxos) and Yo-Yo Ma’s newest set. You cannot go wrong with Fournier or Rostropovich. There are almost no bad recordings. 

But excuse me now, I’m going back into my fourth listening to the new set. I don’t think it is possible to get tired of this music. To paraphrase Dr. Johnson, to do so would be to tire of life. 

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