Why Do Any of This At All?

I've just returned home from one of the greatest concerts of my life, and felt absolutely compelled to share my thoughts with you. Yo-Yo Ma performed all six of J.S. Bach's Cello Suites, from memory, over a mesmerizing two-and-a-half hours at Red Rocks Amphitheatre, in Morrison, Colorado. It was a truly special experience.

When I was eight, Yo-Yo Ma was my inspiration to pick up the violin. I have over a dozen of his recordings in my collection. My copy of his 2001 recording of the Bach Cello Suites 1, 5, and 6 (CD, Sony Classical 89796) is so worn that the CD case is falling apart. I am a fan.

Sometime between 2004 and 2006, while I was attending Texas A&M University, Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax saw fit to perform there an all-Beethoven concert. It still stands the test of time as one of the most incredible concerts I have ever attended. The energy Ax and Ma unleashed on that auditorium was astonishing. A small part of what made the evening so memorable was that at one point Ma accidentally knocked over his music stand—but such was his composure that anyone in the audience that night would be hard-pressed to remember any perturbation or flaw in his performance. It cemented everything I "knew" to be true about him from his recordings.

After the concert, I remember excitedly rushing home to listen to a system I truly adored, and into which I'd sunk every penny I could afford from my afterschool jobs. This was a system carefully assembled and comprising very good gear from respected manufacturers. It took years to build, under the direction and tutelage of an audiophile possessed of many more years' experience than I, and whose taste I respected. It played jazz and classical almost as well as it could play blues, hip-hop, and rock'n'roll. It could reproduce honest-to-goodness instrumental textures. It was the envy of my college buddies. This was my first "music" system. When the school/work day got long, I could count on this system and a glass of wine to help me unwind. It just did things . . . right.


So I couldn't wait to put Ma and Ax's shiny silver disc in the tray and hit Play. But when I did, I was utterly disappointed. The textures of the instruments were all wrong. Everything was flat, mushy, and hazy, and the sense of timing was simply wrecked. Ma and Ax did not feel present in the recording. Shortly after turning the system on, I powered it down. Despite the daily affirmations, obtained in the absence of the sounds of real instruments in real halls, that my system was just right, it had let me down when forced to compete with the experience of live music beautifully performed—or, at least, the fresh, visceral memory of the event I had just witnessed. It probably wasn't fair to ask it to do so. It would have been something of a Sisyphean effort to attempt to craft such a space-time machine.

Nonetheless, I continued to love that system for many years, and never faulted it for not sounding as good as real life—obviously, no system can—but I couldn't help but be disappointed. It might not have been the first time a stereo has let me down, but it's the instance that has most stuck with me through nearly 30 years of listening to audio.

Now here we are, a dozen or more years further down the road. I am no music reviewer, but I can attest that mastery of an instrument is, for some, only the beginning. Compared to Yo-Yo Ma's recordings of the Cello Suites, in 1982, 1998, and 2018, tonight's performance was at once more powerful and more delicate. There was a sense of yearning in those earlier recordings that I didn't feel in the performance this evening. Instead, that yearning was replaced by so much assuredness and passion. Ma lilted and danced—he also ripped and rocked. His interpretations are inspired by his 55 years of playing these works. You can argue that his version of the Suites isn't straightforward Bach—that he opines too much, that the performances are less authentic to the original score than those of other players. But you could also argue that, confronted with a musician with the skill, passion, and vision to play them as Ma played them tonight, J.S. Bach himself would have adored the performance. You should see him on this tour, if you can. He's the best he's ever been.

So what did I do after the concert? I raced home to fire up the rig and listen to some of those earlier renditions of the Cello Suites, of course. I'm such a glutton for punishment, right? But as I sit here, listening, something has changed. I am not disappointed. I am not reaching to lower the volume. I am not quite fooled into believing Yo-Yo Ma is in my room, but I feel different from how I felt 12 or 14 years ago. He's so much closer now. All the things that were then mostly wrong are now mostly right. I can finally let go . . .

In terms of music reproduction, where we are today seems light-years beyond where we were 20 years ago. It almost feels as if the best gear just peels away the stuff that isn't music—the electrical equivalent of Rodin seeing a sculpture inside a block of marble, then carving away anything that wasn't art.

Which brings me to what started this whole thought process. Why do we do any of this at all? I think it might be because great music systems can bring us remarkably close to the experience of hearing high musical art in person. At least I hope that's the case, because it's so addicting. I think we're privileged to be able to create and enjoy products that can help us do this. I know I'm privileged to be able to share these experiences with like-minded people. The more people who can feel as everyone did tonight at Red Rocks, the better.

Footnote: Isaac Markowitz is the performance sales account manager for AudioQuest. He believes that music is the space between the notes.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

'cause, music matters :-) .........

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Although my review of "Six Evolutions," Yo-Yo Ma's latest recording of Bach's Suites for Unaccompanied Cello, is not online, print and digital subscribers can find it in the December issue.

My thanks to Isaac for this wonderful essay.

pbarach's picture

This is a wonderful performance (I bought the 24/96 download). I prefer it to the set he recorded with HIP leanings and to the more generic performance in his first recording.

jimtavegia's picture

when I have thought that my hearing was the issue and not my systems. A cold, sinus issues, or just old age, but a few days later all was well with the world. There is still no doubt that some recordings are not as good as others (for sure), but sometimes I just give myself a day or two and come back to it.

dc_bruce's picture

over your description of the concert. Damn!

Well done, and thank you.

I've an old set of 33s with Pablo Casals playing bach. Whatever else one says about vinyl, it seems always to convey the humanity of the performance in a way, for me, that digital does not. (Although I should probably bring my digital into the 21st century and see if that fixes the problem, or at least mitigates it.)

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Casals' performance, of course, was never initially issued on vinyl. If you were to explore digital reissues, I would choose amongst these three: Ward Marston's CD restoration on the Naxos Historical Series, which you can obtain from European sources; the 16/44.1 digital download from Pristine Classical: https://www.pristineclassical.com/products/pacm074; or the 24/96 download from EMIWarner, available from HDTracks: http://www.hdtracks.com/bach-cello-suites-2011-remaster. While hi-res in general sounds better, with truer instrumental color and a far more convincing soundstage, EMI sometimes filtered '78 recordings to minimize groove noise, and truncated high extension in the process. In the end, these three different remasterings provide three different windows on Casals' accomplishment.

Tidal has the 2011 EMI remaster in 16/44.1. Casals's Bach is not on Qobuz. Idagio, the classical music streaming service I'm about to write up for AudioStream or InnerFidelity - not sure where it will run - streams Ward Marston's Naxos version in 16/44.1. They definitely sound different.

Lord knows, 21st century digital sounds light years better than digital c. 1986. And when you get into higher resolutions, it's really something else.

dc_bruce's picture

The recordings I refer to are on an Angel 3-record set released in 1972 -- (mono) CB 3786, identified as having been recorded 1936-1939. Obviously, these being LPs and the recordings having been made before the LP era, the recordings must have been originally released on 78s. The liner notes to this modern set do not identify the source of the recordings. Since they predate magnetic tape, I assume the source was "electrical" recordings fed directly to a master cutting lathe and also that the resulting product had been released for public listening prior to 1972. But maybe not.

I have to say the vinyl record sounds terrific, with plenty of '"rosin." If anything, the lower pitches of the cello sound de-emphasized, making Casal's instrument sound perhaps like a big viola rather than a cello: more of the sound of the strings and less of the sound of the instrument's body. If there was a HF roll-off administered during the remastering for the LP, it was very subtle and done very well. Casal's cello was close-mic'ed, and the recording sounds that way--immediate and direct.

tonykaz's picture

are spine tingling.

A String Quartet makes the surrounding Air Sizzle with Energy. It never wears out, it's always a thrilling experience.

My Mother was an Operatic Performer that would perform Breakfast time as an exciting event. Her Rice Crispys "Snap Crackle & Pop" was amazing.

Live Music is a wonderful Drug that makes Life well worth Living!

Recorded Music is a fond memory, traveling companion.

Tony in Michigan

volvic's picture

Read Hans Fantel's article Poignancy in Digits as to how recorded music can be more than simply a fond memory. One of the most moving pieces on recorded music I have ever read.


tonykaz's picture

"Echoes of a lost world" Phew!

Yes, I agree, Mr.Hans Fantel explains for us, no surprise he wrote for the then great New York Times.

I've never had a kind word for Stereo Review until now, as I learn he was the Founder.

Once again, I'm finding Stereophile a cozy home for insights like this.

I too reprinted this story.

Thank you

Tony in Michigan

volvic's picture

I have to say my favourite is still the Fournier on DG from the 60's as well as the Tortelier on EMI. Special mention to Maisky and the CBS Yo-Yo Ma recordings. I will purchase his latest foray as a way to compare and see how he's changed his approach. He did do a surprise performance at the Montreal Metro station a month ago. BTW! great read!


funambulistic's picture


Allen Fant's picture

what gear comprised your system? Excellent review on Yo Yo Ma.

Poiram's picture

We build our audio system to be as close as possible to the real concert. It’s like buying an expensive reproduction of the Mona Lisa painting, it will never be the original.

valius55's picture

Bach Cello suites recordings by Bilsma...

Graham Luke's picture

Like Lang Lang performing a tortuous piano concerto without a sheet of music in sight!

boulderskies's picture

I am waiting for equipment I can afford with Meridian's MQA technology. As an "addict," I'm hoping it will bring us one step closer.