February 10, 2009


History and perfection are intertwined in my mind. Something quintessential, the apex of perfection for something, is in a way a historical event. It's easy to know when you are seeing "history in the making" (as though it's not being made, always, all around you); the Twin Tower attacks and Obama's election have those surreal, shimmering qualities where time slows and the rest of life holds its breath, for this is history.

Normally, history feels most comfortable at arm's length- a pebble to pick up, study for a while, and place back. It's hard to imagine that things that happen during our lifetime could be considered important by future generations. How can we produce such perfection, such terrors, in a time where we pay more attention to the tabloids and our broken dishwasher? Surely past peoples, ones who lived through remembered and hallowed historical events didn't have such everyday thoughts as to what to have for dinner.

I have a strong fondness for the cello, and Bach's cello concertos in particular. I've read some people write them off as simple exercises, but exercises don't stand the test of time. My knowledge of classical music is very limited, I only know what I like, what moves me. I believe that Yo Yo Ma's recording of the cello suites is the quintessential recording. There can be nothing else, and I can hardly bear to listen to another interpretation for anything else than scholastic curiosity.

Part of it comes from the fact that Ma is indeed playing a Stradivarius- named Davidov-, one previously played by Jacqueline du Pre, a woman considered one of the great cellists. The sound is absolutely unmistakeable. I have never played in an orchestra, especially never played a stringed instrument, but I can pick out the Davidov as played by Ma on the radio.

The cello suites have a very oceanic quality to them, a wavelike back and forth rocking, even on the spirited tracks. This, I believe, suits Ma's style of playing and indeed, how he views his instrument. He has said: "You have to coax the instrument. The more you attack it, the less it returns".

Ma has achieved historical perfection with his recording of the suites, and this is blasphemous to many. But there is a marked difference in the way the great cellists play these. You can find examples on YouTube (Rostropovich) and Amazon (Casals).

It is hard to explain what moves me so much about Ma's playing, but there is such a depth and warmth to it. The most moving part, the one that stops me in my tracks or thoughts every time, is in this song, from approximately 2:50 to just about exactly 3:30, with the crescendo of a wave really starting from 3:10.

That, truly, is the apex of perfection.