Six Evolutions — Bach: Cello Suites by Yo-Yo Ma
Sony Classical, 2018
And cello to you, too
Yo-Yo Ma’s latest album dropped August 17, and it would have been great to review it then, but you know. Crazy Rich Asians. And then Mitski.
The master cellist writes on his website:
Bach’s Cello Suites have been my constant musical companions. For almost six decades, they have given me sustenance, comfort, and joy during times of stress, celebration, and loss. What power does this music possess that even today, after three hundred years, it continues to help us navigate through troubled times? Now that I’m in my sixties, I realize that my sense of time has changed, both in life and in music, at once expanded and compressed. Music, like all of culture, helps us to understand our environment, each other, and ourselves. Culture helps us to imagine a better future. Culture helps turn ‘them’ into ‘us.’ And these things have never been more important.
Rather than list the tracks, I’ll quickly explain what this is, in case it’s confusing. I just learned some of this stuff this past week in preparation to write this review, so please, if I get any of it wrong, let me know in the comments!
There are six Bach cello suites:
Suite no. 1 in G Major
Suite no. 2 in D Minor
Suite no. 3 in C Major
Suite no. 4 in E-Flat Major
Suite no. 5 in C Minor
Suite no. 6 in D Major.
The tracklists include the Bach catalogue number for each suite, abbreviated BWV 107 through BWV 112. BWV stands for Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis, or “Bach works catalogue.”
Each suite is made of six movements: a prelude, and then five movements based on types of baroque dances. So all six suites go prelude, allemande, courante, sarabande, two minuets, gigue.
This all makes for suuuuuuper long and confusing track titles. Track 5, for example, is “Unaccompanied Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major, BWV 1007: V. Menuets I & II.” For some reason the tracks on Amazon music are nearly twice as long, repeating the “Unaccomanied Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major, BWV 1007” part! Still despite this crazy nomenclature, with the info here, everything makes a lot more sense!
I’m not smart enough about this music to say much more than that it’s just beautiful. My record library includes music featuring a lot of cello, including the neo-bluegrass group Crooked Still, the Scottish dance music of Alasdair Fraser and Natalie Haas, and the heavy metal of Apocalyptica. But as much as that music makes my heart swoon, none of it makes it want to leap up and explode like the playing of Yo-Yo Ma. I cannot tell you why. His Japanese Melodies album was in constant rotation in my red pickup truck when I was in college, and his Hush album with Bobby McFerrin can sometimes make me cry.
This album is better than those. No, I can’t explain it. And I can’t recognize any of the individual movements without looking at the tracklist. And I can’t tell you anything about why these are masterworks other than they are Bach compositions. I can just say it’s beautiful.
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Here’s Yo-Yo Ma on The Late Show with David Letterman in 1994. The first part of this is the gigue from Bach Cello Suite No. 3 (track 18 on disc one of this album!). I had this on VHS and watched it like a million times. This video is my upload.