Post image for CD Review: SIX EVOLUTIONS: BACH CELLO SUITES (Yo-Yo Ma)

by Tony Frankel on November 10, 2018

in CD-DVD,Music


Last night at The Wallis Performing Arts Center in Beverly Hills, I was privileged to witness MacArthur “Genius” Alisa Weilerstein (A-LEE-sah WYE-ler-steen) perform all six of Bach’s Unaccompanied Cello Suites. It felt almost surreal to do this after driving through horrendous L.A. traffic listening to updates on the mass murder in nearby Thousand Oaks, reports that were interrupted by more news: That same community’s rankled citizens had just been evacuated as fires engulfed swaths of Ventura and L.A. counties. With smoke filling the skies above the theater, I sat watching people prior to the concert arguing at the foot of the stage about seat assignments (with mid-term elections proving just how divided Americans are, who isn’t weary of finger-pointing?). Once Weilerstein began, someone’s phone began to go off low-but-incessantly throughout the first two suites — turns out an older woman was getting alerts about the fire but she didn’t turn down the volume properly and had poor hearing (so did that man with the watch alarm).

What’s a person to do? Well, Bach already created the medicine, now it just needs to be taken. And to do that, one must actively listen, a lost art in this information- and noise-filled world. If you don’t do that, the Suites can be more of an endurance test for the listener than they are for the player (which explains why quite a few people left after the first break, more during the second, and a few between the fifth and sixth Suite). I focused my eyes between the bridge and tailpiece of the cello, and let Bach’s magisterial, mathematical, mesmerizing, meditative, mythical, magical, miraculous, mysterious music cast its spell. Even that cell phone stopped bugging me.

So when you buy Yo-Yo Ma’s new release of the Cello Suites from Sony Classical (which you must), it shouldn’t be used as background music. It is your opportunity to get involved by participating with your senses, not just your ears. While the 36-year-old Weilerstein did a remarkable job yesterday (the memorization of two and one half hours of music alone boggles the mind), Yo-Yo Ma’s new rendition is less practical and more emotional and precise, more worldly and magical, more solid and wise. This isn’t to dish Weilerstein, as her interpretation was truly valid and improved as the night wore on, but this — Ma’s third go-around recording the Suites — is also, shall we say, more mature and insightful than his own previous releases. Very little is spelled out by Bach as far as tempo and mood, so there is great room for interpretation.

Recorded at Mechanics Hall in Worcester, MA, recording engineer Richard King has ensured the tiniest bit of reverb, as if we were sitting with Ma in the apse of a church, which aids in the spiritual journey, or for some, a religious experience. “Transcending even Bach’s profound devoutness,” Ma’s lifelong friend Michael Stern writes in the liner notes, “these works are statements of faith pared down to their purest essence.” And unlike music for meditation, which can be sleep-inducing, Bach’s suites — each with seven short movements — go from dissonant to dance to probing to reflective.

I woke up this morning to lingering smoke and devastating news from my own friends who have been evacuated, so the first thing was to pop in this CD, put on headphones, and allow all 133 minutes to wash over me like a tonic. With profundity, Ma’s version makes it easier to listen; it just draws you in. This may be the best recording of the Cello Suites since the great Pablo Casals, the young Spanish cellist who found a copy in the music store he worked in over a century ago, ultimately recording them from 1936-39 after two decades of study. In Ma’s beautifully written notes, he asks us to share it with people seeking equilibrium and solace at a moment of unprecedented change. Which is most of us, yes? You gotta have faith. This will help.

Yo-Yo Ma
Six Evolutions: BACH Cello Suites
Sony Classical
released August 17, 2018  | 36 tracks | 133 minutes on 2 discs
available at Amazon and iTunes and other servers
for info on touring and more, visit Yo-Yo Ma’s Bach Project

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