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.
The prize here is the Rachmaninoff cello sonata, a warm, hyper-Romantic musical tapestry that gives both the pianist and cellist a major workout. Ma is a superb chamber-music player, as is Ax. Both offer the kind of artistic give-and-take that a great performance of this music requires, while neither weighs the music down with excessive indulgence. The Prokofiev, a very different sort of musical beast, is a much lighter work, but it's done no less well. This is one of Ma's best chamber-music discs.
While it is pleasurable to hear three of the world's best-known virtuosos playing together with such extraordinary sympathy and enthusiasm, the actual performances by violinist Itzhak Perlman, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and pianist Emanuel Ax on this disc of Mendelssohn's two piano trios are merely so-so. Each alone sounds marvelous Perlman with his sweet intonation, Ma with his lyrical phrasing, and Ax with his sonorous tone but together they are not quite the sum of their parts.
Gabriel Faure (1845-1924) inhabits a "sound world" uniquely his own: moody, harmonically complex, sometimes neurotically so, melodically elusive. Less readily accessible than either of his French contemporaries, Debussy and Ravel, Faure's chamber music, nonetheless, is infinitely rewarding and certainly should be more widely recorded and available.
This remarkably rich offering of Faure's only two piano quartets (in C Minor, Op. 15 and G Minor, Op. 45) will, no doubt, go a long way in re-energizing interest in this coupling of the composer's most "popular" ensemble works.
This disc repackages tracks of a romantic mood from a variety of Yo-Yo Ma discs released over the course of his strong-selling album career. A few of them (track 2, for example) come from recordings of straight-ahead classical repertory, and there are several new tracks, but most are taken from the cellist's fabulously successful series of crossover recordings, including Obrigado Brazil, Appalachia Waltz, and his collection of music by Italian film composer Ennio Morricone.
As a cultural ambassador to the world, Yo-Yo Ma has immersed himself in the native music of many countries and taken away charming souvenirs of his musical explorations that he shares openly and without affectation. The chief characteristic of Ma's approach is his showcasing of other talents, with a modesty and generosity on his part that makes these performances all the more appealing.