Yo-Yo Ma Plays Cello Masterworks is an eight-CD box set of previously released material recorded in the 1980s and 1990s, and presumably so familiar to his fans that the package doesn't even come with a booklet. It really is a no-frills affair, right down to the thin cardboard sleeves that repeat the same photograph on the box, instead of offering original cover art. But the greatest disappointment is that only three of J.S. Bach's Six Cello Suites were included, so listeners seeking them should forego this budget package and find the complete suites, which Ma recorded twice.
Béatrice et Bénédict, Berlioz's last completed work, is based on Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, but the libretto, by the composer, dispenses with most of the intrigue of the original and reduces the plot to a single premise: Béatrice et Bénédict mask their affection for each other by squabbling, and then finally come to their senses and get married. Although designated an opera, it is closer in effect to an opéra comique because of its very extensive use of spoken dialogue.
Bach showed that the cello can dance, but composers from Rossini to Shostakovich have favored it as an instrument of pensive reflection and brooding melancholy. The playful cover photo notwithstanding, SOLO features Yo-Yo Ma in five 20th century cello works of a serious nature, all with folk influence and all echoing at least a bit of the troubles of the times in which they were written.
With adventurous crossover projects coming one after another from Yo-Yo Ma, it's nice to be able to revisit some of the performances that brought him to the top of the heap among cellists and among classical musicians in general. This disc includes Dvorák performances by Ma from various 1990s discs, with his lovely 1995 reading of the Cello Concerto in B minor, with Kurt Masur leading the New York Philharmonic, as the centerpiece.
Cellist Yo-Yo Ma has long been a giant in the classical world, though he has also made a number of recordings with musicians who play other styles. This holiday disc doesn't exclusively stick to traditional Christmas songs, but covers a wide scope of material in a very ambitious manner.