Cantabile

An Appreciation

Since I first heard them almost sixty years ago, J.S. Bach’s suites for unaccompanied cello have never left me. Over the intervening decades, I’ve listened to I don’t know how many recordings of them — by Casals, DuPré, Rostropovich, Ma — and now that the Internet has finally delivered us up to the celestial jukebox as promised, hardly a year goes by without some new rendition to attend to.

This is a profound thing, an almost too good to be true thing. Play these at Rush Limbaugh’s funeral, I find myself thinking, and the world, for a moment at least, would be a better place.

Such things don’t happen, not in the public space we’re compelled to share with the vengeful, but in private we can reflect on what it is that makes us compassionate even when we know the worst about ourselves. For those private moments, I can think of no better soundtrack than these genuinely sublime compositions of Bach’s, and no better argument for their right to be called that than Yo-Yo Ma’s latest recording of them.

His phrasing here is revelatory, the dynamic range astonishing, the pacing as intense and as variable as one imagines Bach must have heard it in his own inner ear. There are bones and sinews in these performances, and no apologies. As the Italians say, they sing — so much so that I find myself wondering if I’ve ever before heard these pieces played this well, this architecturally. Even Ma’s own earlier recordings of them seem somehow less forceful, less transparent. This is very high art indeed, and I for one am grateful for it.

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