One irony of a musician operating at peak level is that the technique enabling this, the virtuosity that otherwise attracts so much attention, is reduced to secondary interest. It becomes a given and retreats into the background, eclipsed by the purely musical values that a less-confident technique would obscure. At least that's the case when the musician is Yo-Yo Ma performing a solo recital as profoundly satisfying as he did on his latest visit to Seattle. The eager capacity audience was confronted by a Minimalist picture: a chair center stage, soon occupied by a suited Ma, his bright red tie a dash of colour counterpointing the bronzen gleam of his cello. And that's all that was needed to keep listeners as riveted to every note and sigh from Ma's instrument as if an epic adventure film were being projected.

Yo-Yo Ma © Jason Bell
Yo-Yo Ma
© Jason Bell
Presented under the auspices of the University of Washington's dynamic World Series, Ma offered a programme of three of J.S. Bach's suites for unaccompanied cello, interpolated with three brief but eloquent pieces steeped in different folk traditions from around the globe. His encore spoke volumes: the Catalan traditional El cant dels ocells as arranged by Ma's great predecessor, Pablo Casals (who regularly performed it for his encores as a protest against Franco's fascism). In a nutshell, the evening fused several longstanding passions of the omnivorously curious cellist: his tireless re-examination of Bach's treasures and advocacy of contemporary composers, along with his ongoing efforts to bridge cultures and borders via the Silk Road Project.

Ma opened with an excerpt from a mid-20th-century partita for solo cello by Turkish composer Ahmet Adnan Saygun, exactly the sort of fare he likes to spotlight on his Silk Road Ensemble programmes. It announced a leitmotif of simple, straightforward, folk-rooted expressivity that might at first have suggested a mere contrast to the labyrinthine complexity of Bach's thinking in the solo suites.

Yet the short, folksy pieces weren't just picturesque interludes, tiny breaks separating Bach's mountains. Ma's playing elicited subtle cross-connections and revelations, generating an imaginary dialogue between all of the programme's composers. Indeed, he made a point of segueing without pause right into the ensuing Bach each time, as if continuing the train of musical thought.  

One especially captivating feature of Ma's interpretations was his tendency to hone in on essential matters. What emerged, over and over, was a haunting simplicity beyond the complex gestures Bach uses to spin his polyphonic illusionism.

Not an undifferentiated simplicity, mind you. If the Sarabandes were heard to touch on the territory Beethoven would later explore in his late quartets (the sorrow beyond tragedy in no. 2, or the serenity aware of its transience in Suite no. 6), Ma underlined each suite's moments of groundedness in the exuberant rhythms of the body. The minuets and gavottes marked the return to earth, gently bringing us out of the preceding meditation.  

On another level, a sort of "Silk Road" factor informs Bach's suites – at least as far as traveling across the European continent – with their amalgamation of various national idioms. And their design was made integral to the allure. Knowing that a spirited gigue awaits us as the capstone and final dance each time did not equate to predictability. The gigue concluding the Suite no. 1 in G major, for example, was imbued with a contagious, bracing confidence that reaffirmed the assurance of the opening prelude. 

At the end of the D minor Suite, by contrast, Ma's uncompromising rendition of its barely contained fury was frightening: the bleakest point in the evening, ingeniously situated before the intermission and in a kind of emotional suspense before the return effected by the glorious Suite no. 6 in D major at the end of the programme.   

An arrangement of Mark O'Connor's Appalachia Waltz for solo cello (originally for violin, cello, and bass) proved exceptionally affecting as the bridging commentary between the first and second cello suites. Similarly, Summer in the High Grassland by the Chinese composer Zhao Jiping, well known as a film composer, in the second half again set the stage for Bach with music of folklike simplicity. Zhao's keening glissandi and high-lying melodies underlaid by a drone suggested parallels with the compositional ventriloquism uses to imply multiple voices from the one instrument.

Perhaps the most obvious sign of Ma's artistic mastery is his freedom: with technique so reliable, he doesn't have to waste energy on it but can focus entirely on what really matters. Throughout the entire programme his phrasing was deeply felt, arising out of the moment and free of preconceived ideas or routine gestures.

Introducing microsecond pauses, Ma occasionally pulled back, paring a statement down to its barest minimum. What he left unsaid reverberated with significance and implication as well.