On Bach’s Cello Suites, As Played By Yo-Yo Ma


In the first place, I hate actors. They never act like people. They just think they do. Some of the good ones do, in a very slight way, but not in a way that’s fun to watch. And if any actor’s good, you can always tell he knows he’s good, and that spoils it.
-J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye

Whenever I listened to Bach’s cello suites, I always itched to play the Yo-Yo Ma recordings. The other recordings, as Aaron Sorkin once pointed out on The West Wing, are terrible by comparison. For example, while it’s quite possible that Pablo Casals played beautifully in person, Casal’s version of the Suites captures nothing of this magic. Cellos hate microphones, and the one Casals is playing alternately squeaks and brays.

Ma’s Cello Suites has been remastered, which is wonderful, because it used to sound very dull. It was simply too burnished. Now each piece sounds whole; the high notes are there, aching with sweetness. Now you can hear how Ma really plays, and it turns out that he plays eagerly, with a correctness that is almost desperate. He tries to prove every note. He strives for fidelity. Listen closely when two notes are played together: Ma spaces them too far apart, so that instead of hearing harmonies, we hear the technique. It captures Bach’s denotations, but that’s as far as it gets. It is infinitely removed from the composer’s own spirit.

The Suites are some of Bach’s most enigmatic compositions. Emotionally, they are confounding. There are bold outbursts, of course — that’s why tiny snippets of this music, in movies or TV shows, are always so dramatic. Keep listening, though, and the crises dissolve into neat fugal processions. There are melancholy phrases, but no time to savor them. Try, and the melody will rush past and beyond you, hurtling forward like a train.

Ma plays Bach honestly and generously. He serves up the notes on a silver platter, for our consideration and enjoyment. He is somewhat didactic, too: “Imagine what Bach thought, and felt, as he composed the music you are hearing. Even now, hundreds of years later, we can partake of his genius.” Meanwhile, the real message of the Cello Suites is that Bach, himself, could not partake of his genius. The music comes from nowhere, and yet it is immaculate. The poignant quality of the suites is the work of random moments, all of which Bach refutes. This is a man who wrote immensely complex fugues, extemporaneously, using letters chosen at random from the spelling of somebody’s name. There is a deep terror, in Bach, of the opposites his music contains: arbitrary play, and rigid derivations. Ma gives us a chance to think like Bach, by playing with absolute transparency. We, in turn, assume that Bach must have known what Bach meant. We don’t think like Bach, or interpret him. Instead, we admire him…and Yo-Yo Ma, and Pablo Casals…and classical music in general, and symphony orchestras…and the cello, an instrument that can only be mastered with difficulty.

Play these suites at a funeral, and they sound mournful. Play them at a graduation, and they sound stately. Play them in a study, and they sound intricate. Play them outside, and they sound festive. This is not a good thing; to interpret Bach, one has to rescue him. Something should stick. Some note, as it passes by, should cut a little deeper than the others: amid the stillness, a memory, a scar.