Magnificent Bach Recital from Yo Yo Ma

United KingdomUnited Kingdom BBC Prom 68 – J S Bach, Cello Suites: Yo-Yo Ma (cello), Royal Albert Hall, London, 5.9.2015. (LJ)

Yo-Yo Ma (c) BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Suite No. 1 in G major for solo cello, BWV 1007
Suite No. 2 in D minor for solo cello, BWV 1008
Suite No. 3 in C major for solo cello, BWV 1009
Suite No. 4 in E flat major for solo cello, BWV 1010
Suite No. 5 in C minor for solo cello, BWV 1011
Suite No. 6 in D major for solo cello, BWV 1012.

Yo-Yo Ma was nothing short of magnificent in his performance of Bach’s Six Cello Suites. When you consider Ma won the ‘Best Instrumental Soloist’ Grammy Award for his album Six Unaccompanied Cello Suites thirty years ago, this is hardly surprising. Composed during the early eighteenth century (probably between 1717 and 1723), these cello suites have been transcribed for a plethora of instruments; in themselves alone their reach stretches beyond the horizon of what one could imagine. Last night, in an authentic performance, Ma harked back to Pablo Casals whom he thanked for bringing these pieces out of a second-hand music shop where he found them into the performance repertoire of all consummate cellists. Thanks to Casals finding the Grutzmacher Edition of the six cello suites in Barcelona as a teenager and recording all of them we now have many more recordings and varied interpretations of Bach’s glorious music. The varied interpretations are due, in part, to the absence of an Urtext (no autographed manuscript survives) and the deficient placement of slurs and articulation marks by Anna Magdalena, Bach’s second wife. I must add that though Martin Jarvis’ hypothesis that the suites (and parts of the Goldberg Variations) were actually written by Magdalena is certainly intriguing, there is so much of Bach in these suites with tight counterpoint intertwined with an improvisatory playfulness, that for me the best performances bring out the range and humanity of Bach’s compositional pallet. In doing this, Ma was sublime. In a documentary for the Euro Arts Channel in 2010 called Classic Yo-Yo Ma, Ma remarked:

The starting point for me was never to say ‘well this is the way it is’, rather, ‘I don’t understand it, please explain it to me’.

Entreating the music to answer his questioning for meaning, Ma could be heard trying to figure out the inner-life of the music. Consequently the music was imbued with a feeling of exploration and discovery. It is with such humility and unaffected earnestness, Ma approaches Bach. He added:

Music is one of the great ways we humans have for coding human life; it’s a glue that joins people together.

As Ma begun with the infamous arpeggios of the opening Prelude, he communicated with the audience in a direct voice that never subsided. Spot-lit, with no score or musical companion, Ma began delicately, almost tentatively to draw the audience into his musical conversation.

Ma’s posture and stage presence was, in a word, laid-back. He reclined back into his chair, completely at one with his cello, with its spike pulled out far to meet his subtly poised left hand. Even Rostropovich seems stiff and adroit in comparison, and Casals seems positively vertical. This position allowed Ma to create a genteel delicacy, often lilting from side to side, with less weight and pressure on the strings from the bow. One could even see some foot tapping during the first Bouree of Suite III. However, not even Ma was impervious to the occasional squeak from a stubborn hair that refused to grip his strings. Unfortunately there were two audible squeaks at quieter moments in Suite IV, but instead of being off-putting, these rare slips were comforting as they showed his ‘human, all too human’ fallibilities, something other performers are better acquainted with.

In this next section, I would like to highlight a few moments where Ma added a touch of brilliance in his interpretation of Bach’s score. In the Prelude to Suite I, at the D in the middle of bar 22, Ma held this note with a penetrating pianissimo, instead of the oft-heard crescendo. This gave the passage a self-reflexive introspection; the first of many unforgettable moments. Performing my favourite part of the suites, the Prelude to Suite II, Ma evoked the melancholic sobriety of its D Minor key perfectly. He gave the impression of sorrow rather than strain heard in other recordings.

Throughout the suites Ma held each chord (particularly those in the Sarabandes which he distilled in his slow, pensive tempo) exquisitely. He conveyed the required tension without indulging in excessive angst that would have become cumbersome by Suite V. Ma is unparalleled in conveying the spiritual delicacy and quietism at the core of these suites. On the whole, Ma’s performance was more slurred, giving a feeling of continuous light that peaked in his fast paced Courantes (particularly those of Suites II and III) and Guiges. Notably, in the Allemande to Suite III, where the Peters Edition marks the middle four semiquavers of bar 5 as staccato, Ma slurred these notes to give an overall sense of coherence and fluidity. Though at times a little frantic; Ma’s pace never compromised his emphasis as his quicksilver speed helped bring out the colour and vim of these dances.

Another memorable moment came near the end of the Prelude to Suite III, where Ma dug into a series of double-stopped chords followed by two crotchet rests and brief semi-quaver phrases. With an earthy texture and rustic sonority, Ma exploited the resonance of the C major key which marries the cello’s natural tuning allowing the final chord to sing out and reverberate around the Royal Albert Hall.
In good humoured fashion, Ma released some of the emotional tension that hand been building in the earlier suites with a prettily skipping Bouree II. This provided Ma and the audience with a much needed respite before the fiendishly difficult Fifth Suite. Here Ma stuck to the standard tuning, facing the technical challenges with professional ease).

Before Ma began the demanding Fifth Suite, he stood comically stretched and jeered up the audience. When he reached its Sarabande, the second of only four movements in all six suites that does not contain any chords, time slowed to a standstill. Described by Tortelier as an “extension of silence”, Ma had the confidence to let these silences speak as he breathed each series of four quavers followed by a deep crotchet on the G and C strings.
Before the sixth and final suite, Ma mouthed ‘one more’ to an audience who could sadly see the end in sight. Rising to the challenge of the tenor clef, cadenza-like movements and virtuosic passages that require precise scrambling over strings in high positions, Ma’s performance showed bravery and strength when playing what Rostropovich called “a symphony for solo cello”.

Tom Service introduced this concert in lofty terms saying that this performance will “turn the corporeal into the cosmic”. I would argue that Ma did exactly the opposite; and that’s a compliment! Bach’s spiritual heights were translated into tender, fraught, joyous expressions. This music was not thought about or intellectualised, it was felt by each member of the audience. What Ma managed to do was turn a gargantuan feat into a personal inner-transcendence. Some way between eighteenth century Germany and twenty-first century London, Ma carried Bach’s message with precision, demonstrating flawless memory. His irrepressible vitality and bon-viveur spirit was magnetic and his truly human touch in both his manner and performing style communicates pure sensitivity and honesty. Unable to let him go, a demanding audience stomped their feet for an encore which came in the form of a touching tribute to Pablo Casals. Ma returned con cello to perform El cant dels ocells (‘The song of the birds’), a traditional Catalan lullaby where birds sing to celebrate the birth of Christ. If I had to pick one bird from this touching folk-tune, I would say Ma is

The imperial eagle
flying high in the sky,
singing melodically.

Reading an article by Stuart Jeffries in The Guardian dated 28th July, I discovered that for Ma this was as much a public as a private tribute. Ma called this recital a “quirky birthday present” to himself, adding: “because these suites are so meaningful. They’re not only companions and friends, but they’ve also been reference points in my life”. It leaves me to say on behalf of all Prommers that it’s been a delight to mark your latest reference point: happy birthday for October 7th Yo-Yo Ma.

Lucy Jeffery

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