Yo-Yo Ma Presents Bach As A Wise And Spellbinding Storyteller In 'Six Evolutions'

Oct 10, 2018
Originally published on October 16, 2018 12:45 pm
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. For most cellists, the holy grail of the cello repertoire is the set of six suites Bach composed for solo cello. The most beloved cellist of our time, Yo-Yo Ma, has just released his third recording of these pieces as he begins a 36-city world tour of marathon concerts in which he plays all six suites. Our classical music critic, Lloyd Schwartz, says that while each of Yo-Yo Ma's Bach recordings is worthy, Lloyd's favorite version may very well be this latest. Here's Lloyd's review.

(SOUNDBITE OF YO-YO MA PERFORMANCE OF BACH'S "UNACCOMPANIED CELLO SUITE NO. 3 IN C MAJOR")

LLOYD SCHWARTZ, BYLINE: Bach composed his six suites for solo cello during his early 30s, a fertile period that also produced his Brandenburg Concertos, his orchestral suites and the six sonatas and partitas for solo violin. It was a long time before the suites caught on as concert pieces. Perhaps the greatest cellist who ever lived, Pablo Casals, began studying them when he was 13. But it wasn't until 1936, when he was nearly 60, that he began making the very first recordings of the complete set.

Yo-Yo Ma started learning the cello suites when he was 4. As a teenager, Casals became his musical hero. Ma made his first recording of the suites in 1985, when he was approaching 30, and won a Grammy as best instrumental soloist. In his 40s, he recorded them again, this time to accompany a series of videos called "Inspired By Bach." One of the videos was with the champion ice dancers Torvill and Dean and included Ma himself playing the cello in Times Square. The most inspired video was Ma's collaboration with choreographer Mark Morris, who turned the popular "Suite No. 3" into a dance called Falling Downstairs, which begins with the dancers racing down a flight of steps to the descending run of the opening prelude.

(SOUNDBITE OF YO-YO MA PERFORMANCE OF BACH'S "UNACCOMPANIED CELLO SUITE NO. 3 IN C MAJOR")

SCHWARTZ: Now that Yo-Yo Ma is in his early 60s, he has recorded Bach's cello suites again and promises that this will be the last time. The new album is called "Six Evolutions." Like the solo violin partitas, the cello suites each consist of six dance movements, alternating joy and solemnity - six suites, six movements each. Numerologists can have a field day. Bach indicated no tempo markings, so the speed of each movement is left completely up to the performer.

Ma has always conveyed the music's lilting songfulness more than Casals' ferocity. But in this latest evolution, Ma's cello has a more speaking quality than his previous versions. He presents Bach as a wise and quietly spellbinding storyteller.

(SOUNDBITE OF YO-YO MA PERFORMANCE OF BACH'S "UNACCOMPANIED CELLO SUITE NO. 1 IN G MAJOR")

SCHWARTZ: Yo-Yo Ma gives each suite a title, "Nature At Play," "Journey To Light," "Celebration," "Building," "Struggle For Hope," and, finally, "Epiphany." These titles underline the way each suite tells its own story, how each one finds its own way to balance dancing and lamentation. But then each one becomes a chapter in a bigger story, how all the suites taken together, in larger and larger patterns of light and darkness, gather all of us up - the composer, the performer and even the listener - into a vast process of soul-searching and discovery.

GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz is the Frederick S. Troy Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Boston. His most recent book of poems is called "Little Kisses." He reviewed Yo-Yo Ma's new recording of Bach's six cello suites called "Six Evolutions."

(SOUNDBITE OF YO-YO MA PERFORMANCE OF BACH'S "UNACCOMPANIED CELLO SUITE NO. 1 IN G MAJOR")

GROSS: Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Vanessa Grigoriadis, author of "Blurred Lines: Rethinking Sex, Power, And Consent On Campus." We'll talk about how colleges are dealing with the issue of sexual assault, how to define it, and how to decide who to believe when accusations are made. I hope you'll join us. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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