Yo-Yo Ma’s latest recording of J. S. Bach’s Cello Suites (presented without track numbers or timings) is entitled “Six Evolutions”, as well it might, seeing that this is the third time he has set down the cycle in the studio. Where the first (1983) was generally robust and forthright, and the second (1997) relatively more measured, this latest traversal of Bach’s reflections on dance in purest form shows Ma exercising a wondrous process of discovery, though guided by a very practised and assured mind. Indeed he distils the essence of each Suite by ascribing to them a particular idea, respectively “Nature at play”, “Journey to light”, “Celebration”, “Building”, “Struggle for hope” and "Epiphany”.
Ma communicates a sense of unity and direction from one Suite to the next, and within each movement. In denoting No.4 as “Building”, for example, it is as though he seeks to delineate each and every building block with his detached execution of the quavers of its ‘Prelude’, completely breaking down any vision of its wider architecture through tracing the wide arc of each whole bar with their striding arpeggios, and confounding the more usual expectation of wide-scaled majesty in this movement. However, he still contrives to build a climax at the end after the nonchalant passages of semiquavers and an understated pivot-point (on the startling dominant-ninth chord) in between. No. 6 also defies expectations in that it is not presented overtly as a grand summing-up; but through its fairly quiet and collected manner, and a vigorously humorous ‘Gigue’ to conclude, it attains some sort of resolution of the half-dozen Suites nevertheless.
As all that may imply, far from exerting himself to make a big impression, Ma adopts an almost diffident playfulness, though it certainly cannot be mistaken for indifference. The Preludes each establish a distinctive character that is nevertheless supple enough to adapt to the varieties of phrasing and timbre which Ma wishes to bring to the music. Although he is sparing in his use of vibrato, double- and triple-stopping is cleanly executed (not least in No.6’s ‘Sarabande’ which uses that most extensively), and avoids indulging in a wide dynamic range, Ma’s account is by no means a historically-informed or ‘authentic’ one, as he ignores the articulation indications of the fair manuscript copy by slurring some sequences of notes when not asked, and vice versa; and despite relatively brisk tempos, they are not at all rigidly adhered to, with rubato used when necessary. Indeed there is even a pause between the two sections of No.5’s ‘Prelude’ which makes an effect as though it is constructed as two separate sections (presumably a deliberate manoeuvre as it also features in the 1997 recording).
The dances all maintain a winning alacrity in their rhythms, despite Bach’s sometimes filigree lines which can easily become amorphous, especially in the ‘Allemandes’. That of No.1 creates a sense of each phrase posing a question, even as one seems to answer its predecessor so that a constantly unfolding progression occurs. Other instances are more straightforwardly witty, as in No.4, or in the case of No.3, the way in which Ma treats even so innocuous a figure as the little groups of demisemiquavers and semiquavers either by delaying them slightly, or emphasising them almost as though dotted, is indicative of the subtle and imaginative means he uses to drive the music on.
With their contrasting meters and tempos, ‘Courantes’ and ‘Sarabandes’ flow seamlessly, or at least do not become an unseemly dash, such as the ‘Courante’ of No.2 which is otherwise played furiously but not without purpose. The pairs of dances which Bach alternates at the Suites’ centre tend to take on more flair with their characteristic motifs and rhythms, but even so, each work maintains a valid consistency – and therefore the cycle as a whole – through the paradoxical fact that these performances sound both deeply considered yet spontaneous. Intimacy is aided by the closeness of the recording and the fact that the playing is not warmly resonant as such (certainly compared with the greater spaciousness of Ma’s previous recordings) but is variously earthy or reedy.
This third version begs the question whether it is strictly necessary, following the cellist’s previous two, still readily available. The difference in approach is more marked between the first and either of the subsequent two, than between the latter despite the greater amount of time that has elapsed since the second rendering. Many listeners, content with the 1997 release (which accompanied a series of TV films), may not find that this latest interpretation offers significantly greater insights. But it captures the same fluidity and easefulness which delighted audiences in his recent recitals of the whole set, such as at a memorable late-night Prom in 2015, and so may attract new adherents to this perennial music.