Yo-Yo Ma: Bach Suites, Barbican, London

How to rise above the mud
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Aside from his gut-strings Haydn and Vivaldi with Ton Koopman and the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra, the cellist Yo-Yo Ma's most recent performances in London have been as part of The Silk Road Project.

If the karmic ellipses of Tan Dun are your cup of tea, this is fine and dandy. But rarely have we had an opportunity to hear him play the repertoire with which he made his name back in the 1980s. Ma's first recording of the Bach Cello Suites dates from that period. Since then, he has revisited them with film-makers, architects, and even ice dancers. Yet last Sunday's performance of Suites 3, 5, and 6 at the Barbican was free from adornment.

The changes in Ma's Bach are subtle but run deep. Although his choice of tempi has remained remarkably consistent over the past 20 years and his use of decoration is slight, there is an increasingly urgent emotionalism to his playing. This is not reflected in the sobbing vibrato or sudden dynamics of a Romantic. Instead, it is felt in the supernatural spareness of his tone.

Despite unprecedented bronchitic interruptions from the audience, Ma made each Suite a curve that rose to the Sarabande and fell back again - making each of these ecstatic dance-based works a frame for an expression of incredible sorrow, and his performance as a whole a frame for the monumental C minor Sarabande - Lutheran cousin to the Catholic tombeaux of Sainte Colombe. The D major Suite's soprano flourishes nevertheless sang merrily in what, at the Barbican, are otherwise shamefully muddy acoustics for an unaccompanied cello.

With such facility for broken chords, such a natural affinity for French style, and such ravishing delicacy of bowing, I would not be at all surprised if Ma's next experiment with the Bach Suites was with a viola da gamba.