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Yo-Yo Ma's Bach at the Proms

We welcome this review by guest contributor Martin Fraenkel, from the Proms in London. Readers are invited to listen to this concert online.

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Bach, Solo Cello Suites, Yo-Yo Ma

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Complete Cello Suites: Inspired By Bach, Yo-Yo Ma
The Last Night of the London Proms is still a week away, but on Saturday night Yo-Yo Ma concluded a remarkable series of late-night Proms focusing on the solo music music of J.S. Bach. A few weeks back, Alina Ibragimova covered the complete violin partitas and sonatas. Pianist András Schiff followed with an intimate rendition of the Goldberg Variations.

Tackling this monument of music was Ma's latest achievement in a Proms career spanning more than 40 years. In front of a packed audience in the cavernous Royal Albert Hall, he performed all six unaccompanied cello suites in one sitting, without interval. With a thousand members of the audience standing throughout the two and a half hours, this was truly “sharing music,” as Ma mentioned in his post-performance comments. Each of the six suites contains the almost identical sequence of six French dance movements. Ma did not shirk from exploring the extraordinary breadth of Bach’s inventiveness lurking not far beneath the formal structure he imposed upon himself.

The familiar opening bars of the first suite often are played as a firm statement of intent. Ma chose something far more delicate, and set an immediate intimate context for the dialogue between the performer and his vast audience. The entire opening dance scarcely reached above a mezzo forte until its concluding bars. Only in the sixth movement of the suite did he allow the deep resonance of the instrument to impose itself, providing a confident basis for the segue into the second suite. The mood became immediately more introspective, in the key of D minor, delving deeper through each of the successive movements. At times, these seemed scarcely dances at all.

The end of Suite 2 established the concept of a journey through the six suites as a cycle, each related to the one that followed. Suite 3, however, is probably the one performed most often on its own, and its grandeur undermined the cohesiveness of the cycle, as if Ma did not quite know how to fit it into a cycle of six. Moving into Suite 4, the journey wandered slightly further astray, as minor blemishes of tone and intonation finally appeared in an otherwise faultless display of technique.

Any such minor doubts were put aside in the spellbinding Sarabande of Suite 5. Stripped to its barest essentials, this was a stark contemplative interlude; a mood change even more remarkable after two hours of continuous playing. Yet in the midst of this huge physical and emotional effort, Ma could pause to ask the most profound and basic questions. Resisting the temptations of a triumphant conclusion in Suite 6, Ma went out in a firm but understated way – reminding us once more that these are intimate and introspective suites, which would challenge the best of actual dancers.

To bring the evening to an end, Ma came back on stage to play the Catalan El cant dels ocells, a favorite of Pablo Casals, the great cellist who rediscovered the Bach suites and brought them back into the repertoire.

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