FOR YO-YO MA, PLAYING BRAHMS IS like watching a great soap opera, only better. "So much of Brahms's music has to do with love," says the ebullient world-class cellist, 37. "The guy was in some ways frustrated by love, and in a lot of his music you hear this incredible passion and yearning spilling out."
Though Brahms gave his first recital (on piano) at age 10 and was an acclaimed composer by his early 20s, "he was the furthest thing from an egomaniac," Ma says. "Beethoven left sketchbooks with things crossed out; Brahms was so self-critical, he threw away most of what he wrote. He was very private, but he put his emotions into his music. You can sense the frustration and the deliberate reserve, but the warmth comes from a tremendously noble ideal of friendship that he held.
"That's something the six of us felt too. Each of us has known and loved Isaac Stern for many years, and that was the glue. I've known him since I was 9 years old, and he introduced me to my cello teacher. What made this group special is that there is such a spread of age, from Isaac, who's 72, to Cho-Liang Lin, who's 32. From older people you get a giving up of vanity, and maybe you say things in a simpler way. From youth you get something full of heart and striving. We had both, and for me it was a very rich experience. We recorded in Troy, N.Y., in December, and we all got colds—except Isaac. So we urged each other on. The last night we finished at 5 in the morning. We went out and got hot dogs and came back and partied until the sun came up."