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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
The Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello
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, 30 June 2019, Odeon of Herodes, Atticus, Athens.
Interview with Yo-Yo Ma on Bach’s Cello Suites.
Video Director: Bernhard Fleischer.
Region code: 0, Picture format: NTSC 16:9, Sound: PCM stereo, DTS 5.1
Interview in English (original language), Korean, Japanese.
C MAJOR 754408 [2 DVDs: 161 mins]

I watched the interview DVD of this set first, in which Yo-Yo Ma elaborates on a few thoughts with regard to the genesis of Bach’s Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello. Ma regards Bach as a scientific composer – a solver of problems and explorer in music. Having a lifetime of experience with Bach and these pieces, there is a legitimacy and grounding in his speculations on the ways in which Bach’s mind might have been working when composing these pieces. There is useful talk about the content and structure of the suites in terms of their dance movements and why these movements are ordered in the way they are, all dealt with in logical steps and easily followed language. Part of the essence of the ‘magic’ of these suites is that Bach requires the listener to make their own contribution – active rather than passive listening, as it is impossible for the cello to play every note that the music implies, and these gaps and tensions require the listener’s imaginative participation. Ma’s own evolution in his relationship to this music applies to anything that changes over time, that learning continues, and the ways in which we interpret everything around us changes as we do. He concludes on a comment made to him at the age of 7 by Pablo Casals which will be of encouragement to anyone locked into a heavy regime of study: “make sure you take enough time to play baseball…”

Playing in front of a massed crows in the venerable setting of the Odeon of Herodes in Athens, Yo-Yo Ma wastes no time in launching into the First Suite. A smattering of applause after the first movement is staunched by immediate continuation into the rest of the work. Ma is in his element, very much in control of the audience, keeping us spellbound with the quiet sensitivity of his playing but relishing the moment even with the occasional noises from within the crowd. There is even a distant barking dog heard at one point, and in this open-air environment there is some occasional boom from wind over the microphones. In the Gigue at the end of the Second Suite a Cicada or some such insect lands on one of the microphones and Ma plays a duet with its loud semi-rhythmic buzzing. Ma warmly acknowledges fulsome applause between each suite. This is very much a live performance with all of these little and sometimes not-so little artifacts to remind us of that fact, but the cello is beautifully and spaciously recorded, with a marvellous low-end to the sound and plenty of detail in every register.

Bernhard Fleischer’s video directing is very good. There are a variety of views of the soloist from behind, to one side, the front, and at times from a distance from a camera that can track from side to side behind the audience, but the editing is relatively unfussy. We are spared artistic interventions or tourist interludes showing views of the region, and in this way this is quite an intense 140 minutes, but at the same time you can rest your eyes and just enjoy the music safe in the knowledge that you are not missing any new visual treats. There are full access points for every movement in the home menu for this DVD, which is very welcome.

Yo-Yo Ma’s previous recordings of these suites can be used as a reference point, but in the end this live DVD version will be an addition to any collection rather than a substitute for the studio recordings. The playing here has greater freedom than in his very fine first recording from 1983 which can now be found on Sony Classical, as can his ‘Inspired by Bach’ set from the late 1990s which is a little darker in sound and a touch more exploratory in interpretation. In 2018 we were given the ‘Six Evolutions’ set, also from Sony Classical. In its moments of lyrical introspection and lightness of touch as well as greater rubato and increased though always tasteful inclination towards theatricality, this is closest to the interpretations in this Athens recording – as might be expected. With the Athens performance you can sense Ma adapting to the acoustics of the venue and responding to the shifting moods of the audience. He doesn’t ‘ham-up’ his Bach, but there is more spontaneity here than I’ve heard from Ma before in his studio recordings, and playfulness and profundity alike are communicated with more directness and a feel of risk which is quite bracing. Every recording is a captured moment in time, and this is a unique document of a consummate artist performing the greatest of music composed for his instrument. If you are a fan of Yo-Yo Ma and/or of Bach’s Six Suites then you will want this.

Dominy Clements

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