Use Bach to Make the World Better…Part V and Final

This article was written by Zachary Woolfe and the article appeared in the New York Times.

I knew what he meant after hearing Mr. Ma do the whole thing here at St. Nicholas Church, where Bach made music three centuries ago. During the performance, I noticed a new physical calm in him: The effusive body movements for which he’s known and, by some, lightly mocked-the face scrunched in a grimance, neck craned away from the instrument in exaggerated concentration-were gone.

The critic, Alex Ross, in the The New Yorker, called it “the loveliest experience of my listening year.”

He played with honesty, straightforwardness and lack of exaggeration; the music was milked for neither laughter nor tears, with a tone like wire coated in silk. The first suites were taken lightly, as if sunnily refined sketches; it was in the final three that Mr. Ma entered another sphere.

The Prelude of the Fourth Suite soldiered past a sudden feeling of rupture and loss, becoming a study in perseverance and courage. The Courante let out sudden floods of color; the Bourree was rough and spunky, the Gigue raucous. The Fifth Suite’s Sarabande was a long, sinuous exhalation of melancholy. After two hours of music and the forlorness of the Fifth Suite, the Sixth, was resplendent, a golden ending. It moved past loveliness into something greater.

“For Mr. Ma,” Bernard Holland wrote in The New York Times of a performance of he suites at Carnegie Hall in 1991, “Bach’s world is unfailing beautiful sound and graceful melody. Anyone who has sung or played Bach’s music knows, to the contraty, its tenderncies toward density and difficulty. Mr. Ma denies that these exist.”

Nearly three decades later, that’s no longer true.