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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
The Bach Project: Cello Suites
No. 1 in G major, BWV 1007 [17:02]
No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1008 [19:26]
No. 3 in C major, BWV 1009 [20:26]
No. 4 in E flat major, BWV 1010 [25:12]
No. 5 in C minor, BWV 1011 [ 26:09]
No. 6 in D major, BWV 1012 [28:10]
Yo-Yo Ma (cello)
rec. live June 2019, Odeon of Herodes Atticus, Athens
Interview with Yo-Yo Ma on Bach’s Cello Suites.
Video Director: Bernhard Fleischer.
Region code: ABC, Picture format:1080i 16:9, Sound: PCM stereo, DTS 5.1
Interview in English (original language), Korean, Japanese.
C MAJOR 754504 Blu-ray [161 mins]

With catalogues currently bulging, it may be asked why so many new recordings of the Bach Cello Suites by different artists, keep appearing each year? One may also ask why some cellists feel the need to record this same music two and three times. For those who embrace these initiatives, such questions are rhetorical.

In 2018, Yo-Yo Ma recorded the six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello for the third time He also embarked on a venture to play the Cello Suites live on 36 occasions, in six different continents. This Blu-ray disc is a live recording of his concert in Athens on June 30, 2019.

The astute observation was once made, that to understand history we must first understand the historian. In similar vein, it is not easy to understand all that we desirably would about these original works by Bach. Each musician has his own impressions about what Bach may have intended as regards execution, tempo and mood. History is culpable because it offers a paucity of information from the pen of Bach himself. In all probability these important details have been lost in the passage of time since the Suites were composed some three hundred years ago. It may also be that Bach intended performers should have latitude of interpretation? But what we can do by understanding the musician Yo-Yo Ma, is gain a greater insight into the music through his thoughts, expressions and related performance philosophies regarding this iconic and magnificent creation.

Born in Paris in 1955, Yo-Yo Ma is the son of professional musicians, and his tutelage on cello commenced at a very early age. In 1962 the family moved to the USA and the young, precocious Ma was quickly exposed to eminent musicians of the day. He completed his formal studies at the Julliard School in New York, and subsequently has won numerous music awards, including 19 Grammys.

Ma first recorded the Suites in 1983, again in 1997 and then in 2018. It is assumed that this live recording (2019) closely parallels that made a year earlier in the studio for release on CD. There are differences between the three recorded versions, but most would agree that the last is the best. The 2018 version has been described as the best recording since that of Pablo Casals. When asked why such a busy, heavily committed musician would take the time to record the same music three times, he gave the analogy of a book: when re-read many years after an initial reading, it becomes a new book. There can never be a definitive recording of the Suites, because within the available scores, subjectivity plays such a significant role. However, this recording is not just based on maturing technique and musical perception, but on a desire to use the music as a force for good, and to do it in a way that many can enjoy. Ma feels that culture can do everything to dispel fear; ‘culture makes us bigger and fear makes us smaller’.
 
Bach, a devoted Christian, was a committed disciple of that doctrine, and imbued much of his music with such sentiments so dear to his heart. Ma notes Bach’s preoccupation with the number 6, as in six Brandenburg Concerti, six Sonatas and Partitas for Unaccompanied Violin, and six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello; he suggests a parallel with the Bible’s six days of labour and one of rest. Aside from the magnificence of the music embodied in the Cello Suites, Ma believes that they can make things whole, and he expresses gratitude to Bach, the scientist-composer.

To view this live performance from beginning to end is a spell-binding experience. Ma plays all six Suites without intermission, a musical marathon taking 136 minutes. Some of his concerts comprising the same programme, such as his Hollywood Bowl performance in Sept 2017, included an intermission. Of course Ma is not the only cellist, or musician, to play all six Suites in one concert. Violinist, Johnny Gandelsman plays all six Suites arranged for violin in a single concert; while Ma enjoys the seated position, Gandelsman must stand for longer than two hours. Guitarist Kazuhito Yamashita also played all the six Suites arranged for guitar in San Francisco on October of 2015. However this programme was spread over two concerts on the same day; it was the very first time in the USA a guitarist had played all the Suites consecutively on the same day

It is in listening to, and watching the entire cycle in one session that the intrinsic musical value of this work is so copiously revealed. While it is a marathon undertaking for the musician, the listener must also exercise significant true listening discipline. Whenever listening to a performance, the Cello Suites should not to be regarded as background music. This may explain, in part, why one observer at a live Ma concert of this music by Bach, noted a number of people leaving after the first Suite and more leaving between the fifth and sixth. It may also be that living in a noise-filled world, and harassed by promotional messages in all media, we have lost our disciplined listening skills.

Ma generally leaves no pause between movements within each Suite. Considering the emotional and physical demands of such a performance, no discernible sign of fatigue is apparent in his performances. Those familiar with the career of Ma will be aware that he is very active outside the genre of Western Art Music. This influence can be clearly heard in how he approaches certain aspects of the Cello Suites; it is particularly evident in the gigues of each Suite.

This recording is heavily amplified and of good sonic quality. As one would anticipate from an open-air concert, there are several undesirable sounds that intrude on the recording: dogs barking, aeroplanes, and rather incessant coughing by patrons yet to learn the value of a handkerchief in supressing this sound. Those with reproducing equipment which has extended bass frequency response will notice periodic deep-frequency rumbling which may be from the nearby Acropolis metro station? Viewed on Blu-ray players, the picture is of excellent quality.

Some may describe this recording as a spiritual journey; others as a spiritual experience. I would disagree with neither.

Zane Turner

Previous review (DVD): Dominy Clements



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