Arts & Events

New: Yo-Yo Ma Plays Bach at The Greek Theater

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Friday August 15, 2014 - 03:46:00 PM

On Tuesday night, August 12, world-renowned artist Yo-Yo Ma played three of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Suites for Unaccompanied Cello at The Greek Theater. Until this performance, I had resisted falling under the sway of Yo-Yo Ma. One of the reasons for this was his 1998 recording “Inspired by Bach,” in which Yo-Yo Ma improvised on isolated movements from Bach’s Cello Suites, giving them silly titles such as “Falling down stairs.” Why play fantasy versions of Bach, I asked myself, when there is Bach?  

Granted, Yo-Yo Ma had already demonstrated back in 1983 that he could very capably play – and record – Bach’s Cello Suites. But along with all Yo-Yo Ma’s other crossover ventures, “Inspired by Bach” turned me off big time. Moreover, the one recording I owned featuring Yo-Yo Ma, playing Samuel Barber’s Cello Concerto and Benjamin Britten’s Symphony for Cello and Orchestra, failed to convince me that Yo-Yo Ma was anything other than a technically sound cellist who habitually failed to infuse his playing with passionate feeling and deep intellectual inter-pretation of the music. For recordings of Bach’s Cello Suites, I returned again and again to Pablo Casals, the man responsible for renewing interest in these works, or to Mstislav Rostropovich, who recorded them in 1995 in the beautiful hilltop Basilica at Vézelay in the heart of Burgundy, or to Janos Starker, a much under-appreciated cellist and interpreter of Bach.  

At Tuesday night’s recital at The Greek Theater, however, Yo-Yo Ma won me over by sticking to Bach. And not only did he stick to Bach; he played Bach’s CelloSuites 1, 5, & 6 masterfully, with gorgeously burnished tone and committed musicianship. Bach wrote these six Cello Suites around 1720 during his six-year tenure as music director at the court of Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen. In these same years, between 1717 and 1723, Bach also produced his “Brandenburg” Concertos, Suites for Orchestra, Violin Concertos, The Well-Tempered Claviar, and Sonatas and Partitas for Violin. In short, Bach composed much of his finest instrumental music at Cöthen 

Bach’s Cello Suites all begin with an elaborate Prélude followed by a fairly regular series of dance movements such as an Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, and Gigue, with pairs of Menuets (Suites 1 & 2), Bourrées, (Suites 3 & 4) or Gavottes (Suites 5 & 6) intervening before the final Gigue. At Berkeley’s Greek Theatre, Yo-Yo Ma began the program with Bach’s Suite No. 1 in G Major, BWV 1007. Right away, Yo-Yo Ma seemed determined to strike out an original vision of these famous suites. Eschewing the muscular approach, Ma played Suite 1’s opening phrases quite a bit more softly than usual, beginning almost diffidently, then building throughout the Prélude in flowing rhythmic patterns leading up to this movement’s majestically strong closing measures. Was this a valid approach? I had to say yes, though it was by no means the only – or preferable – approach. Then came a slow, expansive Allemande followed by a lively Courante, a dance movement often featuring music to jump by. In Yo-Yo Ma’s hands, one could hear and almost see the leaping dancers. Next came a stately Sarabande, followed by two Menuets played softly, and con-cluding with a lively Gigue. My overall impression was that this Suite No. 1 in G Major received a competent, stylistically individual interpretation by Yo-Yo Ma. Next on the program was Bach’s Suite No. 5 in C Minor, BMV 1011, considered the most austere and profound of the six Cello Suites. Yo-Yo Ma played the opening Prélude in melancholy fashion, then interpreted the Allemande as a stately, austere movement culminating in quite intense figures. Next, Bach’s Courante was played as a slow, hesitant movement totally devoid of leaping and jumping figures. By contrast, the ensuing Sarabande was extremely lively. Then the first of two Gavottes was slow and soft, and the second was extremely delicate. Here Bach surprises us by going against the grain of our expectations. In the Finale, a Gigue, Bach offers lively skipping rhythms, but then closes with an unexpectedly soft ending. Yo-Yo Ma handled all these surprising twists and turns consummately, offering a convincing interpretation of this austerely demanding Suite. 

After intermission, Yo-Yo Ma returned to perform Bach’s Suite No. 6 in D Major, BMV 1012. This work was originally written for a now obsolete cello with an added fifth, high E string. This Suite’s opening movement, a dynamic Prélude, re-quires extraordinary fingering by the cellist as he navigates extreme register shifts from the highest high notes to the deepest bass notes. Incidentally, it was in this movement that I especially appreciated The Greek Theatre’s live video screens offering close-up views revealing the incredibly intricate fingering required of the cellist in performing this opening Prélude of the D Major Suite. Yo-Yo Ma demon-strated his extraordinary technical prowess in mastering this challenge in virtuoso fashion, offering plaintive highs and plangent bass notes amid frequent cross-bowings.  

The following Allemande was played as a slow, infinitely poignant movement; and the ensuing Courante offered lively skipping and jumping rhythms. The Sarabande was played as a melodious, poignant movement, followed by two Gavottes, the first a vigorous and emphatic melody; the second a drone-like imitation of a French musette or bagpipe, culminating in the return of the first Gavotte’s vigorous main theme. The concluding Gigue rounded out this suite with a brilliant finish, bringing to a close this extraordinarily difficult D Major Suite. 

After acknowledging the audience’s tumultuous standing ovation, Yo-Yo Maplayed as encore what I believe was a Scottish air. At the conclusion of this recital, I left the Greek Theatre realizing that while Yo-Yo Ma may spread himself dangerously thin in his adventuresome crossover endeavors, he nevertheless has the chops -- not just the technical chops, which were never in doubt, but also the intellectual and emotional chops -- to play the most austerely demanding of composers, namely, Johann Sebastian Bach, in convincingly passionate and intellectually insightful interpretations. Was this a one night only affair? That remains to be seen.