tue 16/07/2024

Prom 68: Yo-Yo Ma plays Bach | reviews, news & interviews

Prom 68: Yo-Yo Ma plays Bach

Prom 68: Yo-Yo Ma plays Bach

A musical shout of joy to end this season's late night Bach Proms

Yo-Yo Ma: the cellist's humility and generosity find all the humanity in Bach's SuitesChris Christodoulou

When was the last time you saw a classical soloist wearing a suit and tie on stage? It was the only formal thing about Yo-Yo Ma’s solo Prom last night – a delicious visual anachronism, at odds with the American’s laid-back performance style that is to cello playing what Western horse riding is to the stiffly upright English version.

Relaxed and comfortable as none of the other solo Bach performers this season have yet seemed, Ma took his sell-out crowd by the hand and led them through nearly three hours of music – a one-man band, by turns dancing, singing and playing percussion, all with just his cello.

Performing all of Bach’s six Cello Suites back to back in a single performance, especially without interval, is an extraordinary feat – an Everest not only of endurance but also artistry. Carving each of the 36 dance movements from the air with equal care and detail, Ma seemed exhilarated rather than wearied by his exertion, running back on at the end when the audience wouldn’t let him go to perform the traditional Catalan “Song of the Birds” – a tribute to the Suites’ original and greatest champion, Pablo Casals. It brought us full circle, a typically Ma gesture of humility, turning the spotlight onto another.

A G major Prelude so casual and direct it was as though we were joining a conversation in mid-flow

This humility serves Ma well in music that holds a mirror up to any performer, exposing affectation or excess just as clearly as coldness or humourlessness. His Bach is intimate but not introverted, free and improvisatory in spirit but meticulously prepared and understood. He began as he meant to go on, with a G major Prelude so casual and direct it was as though we were joining a conversation in mid-flow. It was the only possible start to a musical epic – just the right degree of bathos, reminding a crowd bedding down for a long evening of serious music of the wit and overflowing good humour also be found here.

To hear all six Suites in a sitting is to experience the emotional and technical arc of a quasi-cycle, from the directness and comparative simplicity of the G major through to the massive demands and darker spirit of the D major and C minor. Both cello and cellist must play many roles, but the connecting thread through all of them here was the soft-grained tone of Ma’s delivery – occasionally gritted for a rustic Gigue or Gavotte, or sharpened to a fine point for the exquisite final Sarabande, but never shrill, even from top to bottom. The result is a warmth, even in the coolest contrapuntal moments, that humanises music that can only speak to the heart via the head.

It was a performance calibrated as a whole, a single, complete musical utterance. But, forced to pick highlights, they would have to include the unending line of melancholy Ma span from the D minor Allemande, the beautifully paced Suite No. 3, balancing athleticism and control, and the overflowing generosity of the two D major Gavottes and the Gigue – celebratory dances that invited us all to join in with a baroque barn dance of raucous energy.

Concerts like this don’t come around too often, nor should they, being far too rich for everyday fare. As a climax of a Proms season, a peak earned over nearly two months of concert-going and a whole sequence of Bach-based performances, it was glorious – a musical shout of joy that could be heard right across London.

Read theartsdesk's reviews of other concerts from the BBC Proms 2015

It was a performance calibrated as a whole, a single, complete musical utterance


Editor Rating: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

Share this article

Add comment

Subscribe to theartsdesk.com

Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters