Prom 68: Yo-Yo Ma plays Bach

Yo-Yo Ma
The Arts Desk

When was the last time you saw a classical soloist wearing a suit and tie on stage? It was the only formal thing about Yo­Yo Ma’s solo Prom last night – a delicious visual anachronism, at odds with the Americans laid­back performance style that is to cello playing what Western horse riding is to the stiffly upright English version. Relaxed and comfortable as none of the other solo Bach performers this season have yet seemed, Ma took his sell­out crowd by the hand and led them through nearly three hours of music – a one­man band, by turns dancing, singing and playing percussion, all with just his cello.

Performing all of Bach’s six Cello Suites back to back in a single performance, especially without interval, is an extraordinary feat – an Everest not only of endurance but also artistry. Carving each of the 36 dance movements from the air with equal care and detail, Ma seemed exhilarated rather than wearied by his exertion, running back on at the end when the audience wouldn’t let him go to perform the traditional Catalan “Song of the Birds” – a tribute to the Suites’ original and greatest champion, Pablo Casals. It brought us full circle, a typically Ma gesture of humility, turning the spotlight onto another.

A G major Prelude so casual and direct it was as though we were joining a conversation in mid­ flow

This humility serves Ma well in music that holds a mirror up to any performer, exposing affectation or excess just as clearly as coldness or humourlessness. His Bach is intimate but not introverted, free and improvisatory in spirit but meticulously prepared and understood. He began as he meant to go on, with a G major Prelude so casual and direct it was as though we were joining a conversation in mid­flow. It was the only possible start to a musical epic – just the right degree of bathos, reminding a crowd bedding down for a long evening of serious music of the wit and overflowing good humour also be found here.

Concerts like this dont come around too often, nor should they, being far too rich for everyday fare. As a climax of a Proms season, a peak earned over nearly two months of concert­going and a whole sequence of Bach­based performances, it was glorious – a musical shout of joy that could be heard right across London. 

Read the rest of the review here