Yo-Yo Ma: Bach, Six Unaccompanied Cello Suites

Y-Yo Ma Bach unaccompanied suites cover

Yo-Yo Ma is one of those world-renowned performers whose success puzzles me.  His playing is competent to be sure, but it's also joyless and mechanical, often lacking in dynamics and rhythmic tautness. It doesn't help that Bach's unaccompanied suites leave little room for error. They are arguably the most demanding works for solo cello, replete with treacherous leaps, fleet passagework, and numerous double stops.

Ma just doesn't seem equal to the task. His tone is often scratchy and strident, sounding as if he's slicing at the strings with a hacksaw. His flat intonation is particularly noticeable in the slower, more luxuriant sarabandes, in which the performer sometimes has to negotiate four notes in a single bow stroke. In the faster courantes and gigues, he dutifully grabs all the notes but doesn't seem to understand that there are phrases there too. The dances (minuets, bourrées, and gavottes) are perfunctorily rendered—metronomic rather than lilting. And his renditions are generally too forte, leaving little room for dynamic gradation.

Sometimes the playing is even mediocre on more basic levels. In the courante of Suite 4, some of the sixteenth-note patterns are imprecise and unclear; he tries to cover this up by gushing forward in tempo. Also, there's often too much time between the low bass notes and the accompanimental figurations in, say, the celebrated prelude of Suite 1. The problem isn't necessarily that there's too much of a breath; rather, the leaps sound jerky given his general lack of rubato.

The bottom line: though this may be one of the best-known recordings of these canonical works, you can do much better. If it's precision you crave, try Rostropovich. For phrasing and dynamics, I might recommend Mischa Maisky (though he can also be a bit forceful with the bow). Overall, my favorite performance of those I have heard is Pierre Fournier's, who combines rhythmic accuracy with a sensual tone and sweep.

Joe's Grade: C

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