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Seen and Heard Recital Review

Johann Sebastian Bach, Suites for Solo Cello: No. 3 in C BWV 1009; No. 5 in C minor BWV1011’ No. 6 in D BWV 1012. YoYo Ma, Barbican Hall, 4.12.2005  (ME) 



The phenomenon that is Yo-Yo Ma is known to everyone: even those whose daily reading is the ‘Sun’ and who consider David Beckham’s autobiography to be the most important book they’ve ever read, are able to name the instrument of this universal classical musician, so it was no surprise that he played to a packed house on Sunday afternoon: in the midst of a typically hectic London December, after a ‘Messiah’ in the same hall on the Friday night, then ‘Billy Budd’ at ENO on the Saturday, these two hours spent in the company of what Casals called ‘the best music ever written’ were a welcome oasis of quiet intimacy.

According to the great Janos Starker, ‘Playing Bach is a never-ending quest for beauty, as well as in some sense, the truth… as the years go by, the understanding grows while the technical means weaken’ -  Yo-Yo Ma achieved technical perfection early on, and now in his 50th year it is fascinating to see that he is taking greater risks with this music, even sometimes placing emotional truth above the absolute neatness of a perfect musical line. Ma is generally thought of as a very cerebral ‘cellist, and given the wide-ranging nature of his musical interests this is hardly surprising, but this is by no means an arid interpretation, particularly in the playing of the Sarabande in No. 3: this is playing of delicately etched detail, yet still delineated by those characteristically expansive tempi. The second of the Bourrées in this Suite showed Ma at his finest, the use of vibrato astutely controlled and the tone quality both melancholy and assertive.

Suite No. 6 is the one for which I am sure most people have the greatest affection: in my own case I think this is because, owing to its extreme difficulty, it is not set for ‘cello examinations and I therefore do not have the feelings of resentment towards it which I do have for, say, Suite no. 1, the Minuets of which were the bane of my life during that gruesome year of Grade 6. Or maybe it’s just that this one is the clearest example of Casals’ opinion of this music: the intense Prelude, the fascinating Allemande and above all the wonderful Gavottes seem to say everything that music can, and more, and it was here that Ma was at his finest, pushing the long phrases of the Sarabande to the absolute limits of expansiveness and seeking out the depths of the Prelude even at the risk of the occasional missed note. A few uncharacteristically scratchy bars aside, this was playing of great technical security, immense passion and deep understanding, reminding us that there are few more refined and enriching experiences than hearing an acknowledged master playing the greatest works written  for his instrument.



Melanie Eskenazi


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