Friday, July 02, 2010

J.S. Bach: Unaccompanied Cello Suites—YoYo Ma

I have taken to indulging myself by buying things that I hear on the radio and like. Granted, this does not represent that big of an indulgence because I am not moved to commerce by the radio with (insert radio pun here) great frequency.

J.S. Bach's Unaccompanied Cello Suites fall into this category of impulse purchases. Though not as ubiquitous as the Brandenburg Concertos, the Cello suites may still sound familiar to the casual listener—some or all of them are staples of classical radio. But the Unaccompanied Suites are notable for being, well—unaccompanied. Just one man, one instrument, one composer; a lean, stripped-down version of classical music, which we often take to be synonymous with full orchestras or various hands-full of musicians—trios, quartets, quintets, ad nauseum.

In this instance, the music is spare and lean. I am struck by the undeniable presence of three well-defined personalities: Bach, the composer, pulling the music from the ether and capturing it on the page; Ma, the performer; reconstituting the written music; and the cello itself, giving voice to Ma's interpretation of Bach's brilliance. Three voices, singing in one medium.

Ma's cello is deep, dark and woody; it buzzes and burrs under his caress; it contributes its own quality to the music, going beyond what Bach composed. It is a different kind of sound from that of the orchestra, with its many overlapping and interwoven layers and brilliant polish. It is intimate, unadorned, direct, personal, almost conversational. You are in the presence three greats: composer, performer, and instrument.

Listening to this team is like savoring a varietal wine—in this case, a deep, dark, dry complex well-aged Cabernet Sauvignon. As wine from a single variety of grape will yield up its bounty under the guidance of a master vintner, so does the unaccompanied instrument yield up its riches in the hands of a gifted performer. All the richness and complexity, quirks and foibles, strengths and weaknesses are expressed to the pleasure of the patient, lingering listener without disguises, cloaking, masking or artifice. These performances are treasures to be savored at length.

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