“Six Evolutions” = BACH: Six Suites for Solo Cello – Yo-Yo Ma, cello – Sony Classical 19075854652 (2 CDs), 133 minutes *****:

Ever since Yo-Yo Ma first learned Bach’s Suite No. 1 under the tutelage of his father at age four, the music seared itself into his soul like an indelible seal. The general public anxiously awaited Ma’s first attempt at these six suites, and were rewarded with an energetic, relatively straightforward but radiantly enthusiastic recording done before he left his twenties. About fifteen years later he returned to them, this time filming the process resulting in performances that are exceptionally competent yet somewhat contrived in their effectiveness.

Now, in his last stab (as he admits) at these seminal pieces—he is in his early sixties now, which makes me feel really old!—the promised land looks to have been attained. These readings are by far superior to anything that went before. The acoustics are rather dry and close, and that can sometimes be deadly in a solo cello recording, but here the harsher aspects of the instrument have been tamed, and we get a mellow, resonant, and communicative sound that is most pleasant on the ears.

Portait Johann Sebastian Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach

Interpretatively, these are probably the most intimate readings of any music Ma has ever recorded. There are liberties taken, but never do they emanate from willfulness or some perverse ideology, but rather from a deep sense of love and commitment to the music. Ma believes that these works have the power to reach out to a universal audience, yet he chooses to present them in a way that is extremely personal and highly subjective, an almost intrusive overhearing of the most private sentiments. At the same time, when all is said and done, the feeling is not one of exclusivity, but instead a sense of genuine expression well within the perceived limits of what Bach might have imagined.

Lovers of this music will want several renditions of these works, and I continue to favor the incandescent readings of Winona Zelenka above all others. Nevertheless, this swan song issue from the most famous cellist living is required listening for anyone who loves Bach.

—Steven Ritter

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Six Evolutions Album Cover, Yo Yo Ma