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RECITAL REVIEW
Mastercard Performance Series / Saturday, January 24, 2015
Yo Yo Ma, cello

Cellist Yo Yo Ma

MESMERIZING BACH AND CASALS IN MA'S WEILL HALL RECITAL

by Terry McNeill
Saturday, January 24, 2015

Cellist Yo Yo Ma’s warm friendship with North Coast audiences entered a new chapter Jan. 24 in a standing-room only and stage seats Weill Hall recital. Playing three Bach Suites for solo cello, Mr. Ma could have echoed the young Liszt’s famous comment, “the concert is me.”

But the concert was really about Bach, and Mr. Ma’s dedication and mastery for these ever-fresh works composed in the early 1720s in Cöthen, Germany. Wearing a simple dark suit he walked quickly on stage to first of four ovations, and with his trademark grin got down to business with the G Major (No. 1), BWV 1007.

The lack of winter audience coughs was a surprising bonus, and the cellist made the most of the hall’s silence to fashion an evening’s Bach that spotlighted rhythmic virtuosity rather than a constantly speedy bow and work on the fingerboard. It seemed there was never an extended presto the entire night, and Mr. Ma was in no hurry to get anywhere in this Suite and the No. 5 in C Minor (BWV 1011) that closed the first half.

All through both works the pianissimo playing was superb with varied attacks and textures in the repeats and a fluid legato with minimal vibrato. Often there was no vibrato at all in long-held notes at the end of silken phrases. These were carefully balanced interpretations, often restrained and emphasizing the subtlest changes in tempo and inflection. The crescendos were long and beautifully paced.

Mr. Ma drew a warm geniality in the concluding C Major Suite (No. 3, BWV 1009) and the sonority was underscored in his cello by the use of low open C string in chords. His control of multiple stops was sovereign in this seven-movement suite. The plaintive and magisterial Sarabande was at the center of his reading, and the Gigue came forth as a rustic dance with pedal point.

Responding to a spirited standing ovation Mr. Ma eschewed in an encore something popular and fast (the Gigue from the E Flat Suite) or popular and slow (St. Saëns’ “Swan”) and paid homage in audience remarks to Pablo Casals, who in modern times first played the six Suites together and first recorded them in 1936. He played a mesmerizing “The Song of the Birds” that the Catalan cellist wrote in the 1930s. The shimmering long phrases and luminous trills sounded out in a Weill Hall where nearly 1,500 people breathed as one with the extraordinary musician.