It’s safe to say that Yo-Yo Ma has been classical music’s most successful goodwill ambassador of the last decade. His unparalleled technical virtuosity, passionate style, and crossover forays into movie soundtracks, jazz and folk music have elevated him to a recognition level that even some rock stars would envy, and he’s undoubtedly won classical countless new fans along the way. And he’s done it all on the cello, a humble instrument that usually plays (if you’ll pardon the pun) second fiddle to showier solo instruments like the piano and violin, at least in the popular perception of classical music.
Thanks to his featured playing on the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon soundtrack, Ma’s star is shining more brightly than ever at the moment, which probably accounts for the timing of this Sony Classical greatest hits disc. Comprising 16 tracks from 13 albums Ma recorded between 1992 and 2001, plus two new tracks and an outtake from the Grammy-winning Soul of the Tango, this is a comprehensive and far-ranging collection, covering everything from Baroque to Appalachian. To classically-trained ears it will probably come across as an unstructured hodge-podge — especially since single movements are frequently excerpted from longer pieces — but the average listener is bound to appreciate the variety of styles Ma has explored over the last decade, and the consistently keen, emotional sound he brings to each one.
Classic Yo-Yo is bookended by two solo performances that together tell you almost everything you need to know about Ma’s acclaimed abilities. The highly familiar prelude to Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 (now playing on a German car commercial near you) is all about virtuosic runs and Baroque formality — as Ma dips up and down Bach’s mathematically crystalline scales, the listener sits in awe of the dexterity of his playing. On Mark O’Connor’s elegaic “Appalachia Waltz”, Ma’s technical prowess is still present, but kept in close restraint beneath his achingly heartfelt performance of the song’s simple folk harmonics — just try not to get misty-eyed as the last minor-key notes spill out of Ma’s instrument. It’s this extraordinary balance between technical flash and raw emotion — and the wisdom to know when to favor one over the other — that makes Yo-Yo Ma such a rarity among musicians working in any genre of music, classical or otherwise.
Elsewhere on this compilation, every style of music for which Yo-Yo Ma is known gets its due. Only his most recent area of interest, Asian traditional music, is arguably short-changed — only one track from the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon soundtrack makes an appearance, the melancholy love theme “Eternal Vow”, and even here the traditional Chinese instruments fade out after a brief intro to make way for the weeping Western strings of the Shanghai National and Symphony Orchestras. Like much of the music Ma favors playing, the track is simple and heartbreakingly beautiful. Modern American music is well-represented, with three tunes from Ma’s Appalachian collaborators Mark O’Connor and Edgar Meyer, one traditional hymn, a Gershwin prelude, and the album’s only real throwaway track, a typically insipid theme from John Williams for a new PBS program called “American Collection”. There are also three tracks by Bach, one by Rachmaninoff, three very different Romantic compositions from Dvorák, Brahms and Fauré, and two of Astor Piazzolla’s strident Argentinian tangos, including one heretofore unreleased. That one soloist could cover such a range of styles in a decade is amazing enough; that Ma’s own personal style is nearly strong enough to make this collection sound like a coherent whole is even more remarkable.
There are too many highlights to list, but I’ll recap a few of my favorites. Bobby McFerrin fans and haters alike who haven’t heard the quirky vocalist’s collaborations with Ma will be blown away by their voice and cello duet on Rachmaninoff’s “Vocalise”, a latter-day Baroque hymn that McFerrin and Ma present with the shimmering, translucent beauty of a cathedral stained glass window. Piazzolla’s “Libertango”, which was also featured on the soundtrack to the Sally Potter film The Tango Lesson, has a lovely urgency to it, with Ma’s cello and Antonio Agri’s violin soaring over an infectious accordion-fueled vamp. Edgar Meyer’s “1B” is a romp, with bassist Meyer, violinist O’Connor, and Ma sawing merrily away through chord and tempo changes that swing from old-fashioned Appalachian fiddle music to modern jazz and back again. Ma’s duet with vocalist Alison Krauss on the traditional hymn “Simple Gifts” is rendered with such pure beauty it brought tears to my eyes, and his collaboration with pianist Jeffrey Kahane on Gershwin’s “Prelude No. 1” is laugh-out-loud bravura musicianship, as Ma audaciously takes Gershwin’s famously chunky piano chords and somehow wraps his bow around them.
For fans of true classical music, Classic Yo-Yo offers collaborations with some of the biggest names in the business, including Itzhak Perlman, Emanuel Ax, Isaac Stern, and the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra. The latter shines in excerpts from Bach compositions taken off Ma’s masterful Simply Baroque CDs; in a Baroque setting, Ma’s sound is truly without equal, tonally rich, deeply resonant, and infused with more passion than perhaps any Bach recording since Glenn Gould’s transcriptions of the Goldberg Variations. The labors of Ma’s other collaborators are somewhat lost on what, in my opinion, are weak selections. I’ve never been a big fan of Brahms’ lightweight romanticism, and that of his contemporary Gabriel Faure is not much better — even in the hands of Ma, Ax and Stern, neither composer’s work rises much above background music. Dvorak’s “Slavonic Dance in E Minor, No. 2” is more interesting, a peculiarly overwrought Czech version of the gooey romantic sound of late nineteenth century classical, which Ma and Perlman render with witty showmanship.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Classic Yo-Yo is its internationalism — tracks here represent the work of composers from Germany, Argentina, America, Czechoslovakia, China, France, and Russia. This should come as no surprise, since Ma himself is a rather international figure, a man of Chinese descent born in France and educated in the US. Perhaps this, in addition to his brilliance as a cellist and fearlessness as a stylistic experimenter, is what makes Yo-Yo Ma such an ideal spokesmodel for modern classical music. In his life and work, Ma continues to broaden the scope of classical music far beyond the bounds of the traditional European canon. In fact, it’s probably not even accurate to pigeonhole Ma under the classical rubric — what he performs is simply music, in its purest and most moving forms.