Johann Sebastian BACH. The suites for Solo Cello: “Six Evolutions” (BWV 1007-1012)—Yo-Yo Ma, cello—Sony 19075 85465 2—134:00, *****:

“Better than average, yes. And the best of Ma’s recordings of Bach’s cello suites. This is a recording devoid of an artist’s ego; it showcases his love for music.”

I was in elementary school when Yo-Yo Ma released his first recording of the Bach suites on CBS Masterworks. I was in graduate school when I picked up his second recording, in addition to a series of six movies around the suites, each featuring Ma working with another artist. In this rendition, which he claims will be his last recording, he brings yet another take on these pieces which have seemed to have been so integral to his musical life. The liner notes reveal his close association with Fred Rogers. I’m led to believe his relationship with the personage of Johann Bach is no different, really, in the end. He’s had the time to know and consider the music of a musical friend.

And then there are obvious assumptions. There’s nothing wrong with this recording. You and I are both very safe in making this assumption. It’s Yo-Yo Ma. He plays the cello. Sony’s made good recordings. And this is his third recording. The interpretation will be, we might both guess, better than average.

Comparing the recordings, the newest is, I believe, his best. The recorded sound is most definitely the best. And there are small nuances, such as the execution of an ornament, or the the approach toward a cadence that might be different, but in general, Ma is quite consistent in some of his interpretative decisions. The biggest evolution between his first and third recordings is less reliance on an overly connected, almost legato style of playing. In this reading, Ma is more willing to detach between phrases or within a phrase in faster movements.

In general, Ma is a fan of large phrase lengths. Baroque music, and especially so with Bach, is made up of smaller rhythmic groupings and even melodic sequences. Ma’s vision for the larger, longer phrases is a keystone of his performance style. It’s no better shown than in the opening of the second suite in D minor, BWV 1008.

This observance of long phrases isn’t always in vogue with baroque performance. The competing idea would be to present musical material in phrases that could be sung: the longer phrases, therefore, would be unlikely candidates for the singer would lose sufficient air. Musically, the long phrase works: Ma is masterful in his restraint in the second movement of the same suite, the Allemande. With shorter phrases in the Courante, the effect is less pronounced. My reference recording for the Bach suites, the third recording by Pieter Wispelwey, is an interesting comparison. His phrases in the same dance are shorter. Ma’s second recording too features the longer phrases, but in this third recording, especially so in this Courante, he emphasizes more of the smaller phrases within the longer stretch. This new recording therefore is consistent but somewhat evolutionary.

The consistency also means that ideas that I may not have liked in the first or second recordings are here again. My best example is Ma’s tempo choice for the Gigue in the fifth suite, which I still believe drags. Consistency is also a good thing. Things I thought were done so well in the earlier recordings, such as the Sarabande from the second suite, thankfully too are around again.

His reading of the Gigue from BWV 1008 gives me goosebumps. Track number twelve from the first disc deserves many repeats.

Yo-Yo Ma is a remarkable musician and someone who I have always enjoyed hearing talk about music and life, in general. This latest recording is a superb refinement and testament to a lifelong journey with this music. And in that, I believe, Ma has found a distillation of his ideas that we might say are wholly authentic. I have often felt his first recording was entrenched in a more traditional performance style; his second, made contemporaneously with his recordings named Simply Baroque used a lower, baroque pitch. And while comparisons with baroque cellists may show at least some influence on Ma, the consistent bits—and there are many of them—show what Ma wants us to hear about this extraordinary music.

In total this is a very beautiful recording that really is divorced of any semblance of ego or extreme, new interpretive decisions. The recording reveals Ma’s continued devotion to his ideals, his musicianmanship, and his love for the music of J.S. Bach. And for those in large cities, it signals the start of a tour with Ma performing the suites again in public.

—Sebastian Herrera

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