The world’s most adventurous classical musician, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, turns 60 Wednesday. From the solo suites of Bach to his “Silk Road” collaborations with artists from around the world, he has covered more musical ground than anyone I can think of.
I’ve had a strange recorded relationship with Ma for the last 35 years. He hasn’t made my first-choice recordings for big works: the Bach suites (that would be Pablo Casals), the Beethoven sonatas (Mstislav Rostropovich) or the major concertos by Elgar (Jacqueline Du Pre), Dvorak (Pierre Fournier) or Schumann (Steven Isserlis).
Yet Ma is almost always my second choice, because his keen intelligence and probing approach mean he always has something important (if usually understated) to say.
That’s also why he frequently makes satisfying chamber recordings: He doesn’t need to dominate other musicians. That comes through clearly in his newest disc from Sony Classics, “Songs From the Arc of Life,” where he teams up with British pianist Kathryn Stott.
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They met in London in 1978, under circumstances that suggest “The Goodbye Girl:” Ma and his wife sublet an apartment in London from Stott’s roommate, unaware that Stott – who had a major competition coming up – had decided not to leave town, after all. They became occasional duet partners in 1984 and have played together off and on ever since.
The album begins with the Bach/Gounod version of “Ave Maria” and ends with the one by Schubert. In between these come more chestnuts: Brahms’ bedtime lullaby, “The Swan” from Saint-Saens “Carnival of the Animals,” Dvorak’s schmaltzy “Songs My Mother Taught Me.”
Yet this disc doesn’t limn a life full of balm. It includes an unsettling piece by contemporary composer Giovanni Solima, the Jacob Gade tango known as “Jalousie” (“Jealousy”) and Schumann’s “Vanitas vanitatum,” taken from the biblical warning that everything in life comes to vanity in the end. Messiaen’s “Praise to the Eternity of Jesus,” a raptly slow piece written in a prisoner of war camp during World War II, remains one of the most spiritual 10 minutes of music I know.
That’s Ma for you. He can convey humor, warmth or sensitivity in almost anything he plays. (If you’d like an inexpensive box that surveys some of his most significant records, I’d get “Yo-Yo Ma Plays Cello Masterworks,” an 8-disc collection that retails for less than $20.)
He also expects the listener to meet him partway, so the experience of hearing great music isn’t passive: “For me, now, what I can’t complete myself, the listener has to,” he has said. “Together, we create a greater unity.”
Few people remain lifelong learners, questioning their long-held beliefs and preconceptions or embracing new ideas all their days. But the most probing and satisfying artists do, and Ma is one of them.