Yo-Yo Ma Revisits Bach’s Cello Suites

Review by: Jed Distler


Artistic Quality: 9

Sound Quality: 9

When Yo-Yo Ma’s first recording of the Bach cello suites appeared in 1983, the young cellist’s beautifully sculpted if sometimes generalized interpretations easily held their own among the catalog’s reference versions. His 1997 remakes were strikingly different, reflecting the influence of period-instrument performance in regard to the use of lower pitch, shorter phrase groupings, a more cogent sense of dance, an overall lighter approach, plus a probity of detail that occasionally bordered on the self-aware. The cellist recorded the suites anew in 2017 for the third and apparently last time, and, on balance, this valedictory version is the best of the three.

Ma’s conceptions are similar to those of 1997, but simpler and more refined, while reverting back to modern pitch. A good example can be found in the G major suite Sarabande, where the music seems to play itself and bypass the instrument, in contrast to the 1997 recording’s more fragmentary deliberation. In the C major suite Bourrées, Ma’s offhand sense of “swing” and subtle accents differ from 1997’s more noticeable dynamic inflections. While the 1997 E-flat suite Courante’s detaché articulation seems reigned in to the point of self-denial, Ma now throws in some legato phrases for good measure and is not afraid to roughen up his tone for emphasis here and there. It’s a universe apart from the younger musician’s amazingly suave and steady 1983 traversal, which, however, might appeal more to listeners as cello playing per se.

Ma’s first two recordings of the D major suite stood out for his amazing evenness and control of the music’s high-lying tessitura. Now he favors marked textural contrasts, such as in the clipped, almost reedy sound he employs for the melody, in contrast to the smoother arpeggiated chords underneath. On the other hand, he seemingly throws away the D minor Gigue, in contrast to 1997’s superior rhythmic intensity. The cellist’s booklet notes eloquently reflect upon his Bach journey to date and beyond, while the engineering conveys both body and definition, even when Ma’s tone transpires at a whisper. As the relationship between Yo-Yo Ma and Bach continues to evolve, the cellist has less and less to prove.

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Recording Details:

Album Title: Six Evolutions: Bach Cello Suites
Reference Recording: Heinrich Schiff (EMI); Jean-Guihen Queyras (Harmonia Mundi)

  • Yo-Yo Ma (cello)

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