Stories » The New Yorker. Notable performances and recordings of 2017

Top 10 for Feb

The New Yorker. Notable performances and recordings of 2017

Bookmark and Share

The loveliest experience of my listening year took place on a balmy September night at the Hollywood Bowl. Yo-Yo Ma came to the great amphitheatre in the Hollywood Hills to play the six solo cello suites of Bach. I had doubts about the enterprise going in. Could Ma's instrument be amplified effectively in such a wide open space? Could such intimate music speak to a crowd of thousands? People prize the Bowl for its casual conviviality. Patrons dine, drink, and, sometimes, chatter among themselves. A lighter repertory works best: Holst's "Planets" is a blast. Bach's itineraries of the world spirit are another matter.

Ma applied his customary virtuosity and warmth. At times, he seemed to lose the narrative thread as he savored every twist and turn of Bach's endless melody. Several of the sarabandes slowed to a contemplative crawl. Thomas Demenga's new recording of the suites, for the ECM label (see below), has more straight-ahead song and dance in it. But you never doubted the sincerity of Ma's approach: he was following his natural musical rhythms, to the point that it felt less like a performance than like an interior monologue. Little was lost in the amplification: the cello sound remained full, nuanced, and unforced.

Since the death of Luciano Pavarotti, Ma has been the most popularly celebrated of classical musicians. Very few other soloists could have sold out the Bowl. If Ma enticed thousands to the space, it was Bach who held them rapt, for nearly three hours. The enthusiasm of large crowds is always a bit unsettling: no matter how innocent the occasion, you can imagine the energy of the collective being channelled to less wholesome ends. The huge, serene company at the Bowl was another matter: it was under the spell of a solitary searcher in the dark. One of the only sounds I heard around me was someone quietly sobbing.

SEE The New Yorker's Alex Ross - Notable performances and recordings of 2017