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Classical: Yo-Yo Ma: Bach Trios; Azul

03.24.17
Yo-Yo Ma
The Times

This week the cellist Steven Isserlis observed on Twitter that there are two kinds of classical musician. There are the actors, transforming themselves with each piece, or the stars, “always themselves, no matter what”.
The Grammy-festooned cellist Yo-Yo Ma is a shapeshifter by nature and has recorded more than 100 albums featuring a bewildering variety of collaborations. The reason why he carries his public through all these different projects, however, is because he is really always himself, no matter what.
 
First, there is the Chinese-American’s lightness of touch, that silkiness to his sound. And then there is something ineffable: the sense of openness and sharing that imbues his playing. “Just listen to this — and this — and this!” his instrument seems to say as its owner unobtrusively guides it from one bar to the next.
 
This evangelism pours out of Ma’s effervescent new Bach album. It features an unorthodox line-up of cellist, mandolin player (Chris Thile) and double bassist (Edgar Meyer). Neither Thile nor Meyer is a classical specialist, but Bach’s music can withstand nearly anything thrown at it, and these arrangements of the baroque master’s music are playful, but never cavalier.
 
Bach himself would often rearrange his works for other instruments, so there is every reason, for example, to split the contrapuntal lines of the Organ Sonata No 6 in G Major for this trio, and if the result is no longer a virtuoso showcase for one instrumentalist, the musicians relish the chance to go their own way, then recombine, their melodic lines intertwining, then breaking free.
 
There are Bach chorale preludes given elegant facelifts: Wachet auf now finger-tappingly good, with the bluegrassy notes of the mandolin resting on Ma’s warm, supple sound; or the bass and mandolin twanging together like lost souls at the bar at closing time while the cello sings Erbarm dich mein around them as if in a karaoke fug.
 
An E minor fugue, again conceived for organ, reminds you what the word “fugue” really means — flight — as Ma and the gang run away with themselves, the cellist’s bow noisily bouncing off the bridge during the chase. The adventure concludes with the viola da gamba and harpsichord sonata (No 3 in G Minor), which, remade for these freewheeling forces, becomes an irresistible jam session.
 
Read the rest of the review here