Yo-Yo Ma: Bach / Cello Suites Nos. 1, 5 & 6

Yo-Yo Ma
Bach / Cello Suites Nos. 1, 5 & 6
Music for You

The love of one’s country is a splendid thing. But why should love stop at the border?
— Pablo Casals

Recorded in a digital studio in 1982, these are Yo-yo Ma’s first recordings of Bach’s sonatas (or suites, as they are usually called) for unaccompanied cello. Actually, this selection represents half of the six pieces. The biggest challenge for the listener is to put all other versions of the suites out of mind, and listen to this as if hearing the music for the first time. That means pushing all thought of Casals completely from mind, which is hard to do when approaching Bach’s suites for cello. Without Casals, people everywhere would have had substantially less music to explore. Also, both he and Mr. Ma are necessary to make a point about the very transience of tastes in music.

I don’t know why Bach composed these works or even when (the best scholars agree sometime between 1717-1723). I find it fascinating that as of a scant century ago the suites were so obscure as to be almost completely unknown. They had not just fallen into dusty oblivion; they rested at the absolute bottom of the classical hierarchy. Back during a time when so much as installing an end piece on a cello was apostasy, Bach was falling out of current favor with performing musicians. The handful of people who even knew the suites existed viewed them as brittle exercises, deemed of slight acquisition value only because of the composer’s name. The suites may likely have continued to be ignored by all, until the paper they were written on rotted into a condition not even suitable for fish-wrap and the music could have been lost forever, but for a 13-year-old young man named Pablo Casals.

Casals at the time was playing in a café in Barcelona four hours a day, for four pesetas a day, to finance his music lessons. New to the cello, he was always looking for new music. He happened upon a rare copy of the suites in a second-hand shop in 1889, was intrigued because he didn’t know these even existed any where in the world, and then became ecstatic when he recognized what he had found and their worth. He then devoted a dozen years of study and practice before performing the suites in public. Casals became the first person in the world to record them (1915) and more than 20 years later (after much persuading) he recorded them in their entirety, which he did only once. Yet his ongoing passion for the works brought the music back to life. From something regarded as museum shelf paper to being revered now as a masterpiece for cello the equivalent of the Goldberg Variations, these six suites are now studied and played by nearly every master and student of the cello.

For his own pupils, Casals characterized the works by giving each piece a distinct mood. He told the young players that each suite takes its character from the prelude. According to Casals, No. 1. is “optimistic”, No. 5. “tempestuous”, and No. 6. “bucolic”.

Music for You series describes these three suites as “invigorating” and “resolute”, which is to anticipate the mood for the listener. Unless being introduced to a classical work for the first time, previous performers (a group typically peopled by familiar, or preferred performers, and genuine masters) set the measure for all that follow and they always have some influence on what we’re listening to now. These suites performed by Yo-yo Ma, after all, are a variation of something I’m most accustomed to hearing Casals playing, and for a mighty long time I might add. Most lately on a scratchy CD that was transferred quickly from 78s recorded in Paris in 1938-39 (right about the time Casals refused to perform for Hitler). But the important thing to remember is that in his playing, Casals always emphasized the dance nature of the music.

Yo-yo Ma’s execution is sometimes more like a dance out of the shadows into the filtered sunlight of a deep forest. Ma’s playing is refined and elegant, and seems here to emote most effectively in the slightly melancholy sections, his interpretation showing best in those areas that permit such flexibility. His very fluidity in most passages can make his approach seem strangely stiff in others. Also, this fluency is a most individual interpretation, not as stopped or abrupt as more “authentic” players tend to read the music. You can hear his breathing, which only reminds me of how he seldom wavers from the natural breath of the music and understands the pulse. While Casals (for reasons unknown to me) preferred to play the Allemande in No. 5 straight through, Ma follows the notation for two repeated passages, prolonging the piece for several minutes longer and re-emphasizing the mood by his restatement. Though the suites may take their character from the prelude, here it seems from the prelude’s very first note, which might be the single most important note when playing unaccompanied.

Though just hearing the Bach cello suites is always somehow reassuring, at this stage of the game for me, they are like old friends, although perhaps a bit more reliable. I’d encourage prospective buyers to get both Casals and Yo-yo Ma and start making up their own minds. I’ll go so far as to search out Ma’s later 1998 recordings and now even look forward to when he might record the suites for a third time. Knowing how the suites were nearly lost, what a delight for me to find written notation posted online allowing me to easily download a copy so I can try to follow along.

The Music for You series seems shaped to appeal to those who might be more familiar with Ma from his crossover work, at least judging from the packaging. Here’s hoping they slip this CD in the player on long family car trips into the country. The presentation image is Richard Misrach’s artful photograph “Peces muertos, mar de Salton, CA 1883” used as the cover, and this one picture is certainly worth more than my ten thousand words. As an inland sea in a desert, the Salton Sea is an improbable phenomenon, more so since it is the result of an historic near-catastrophe created by foolish men who were following the trends of those times. The sea, though regarded by most as “dead” and shrinking in size each year, manages to support life, refreshed as it is now and again by rare and completely unpredictable rains. Just a reminder that the littlest fish and the smallest ponds can sometimes benefit from increased circulation.