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Zuill Bailey, one of the today’s most celebrated cellists, has a decade-long association with the N. C. Symphony, with his regular appearances spawning a series of live recordings with the orchestra. Following the chart-topping CD of Benjamin Britten’s “Cello Symphony,” their second collaboration is a masterful performance of Prokofiev’s Sinfonia Concertante. (A third recording, Beethoven and Brahms concertos, awaits future release.)

Premiered in 1952, the Sinfonia Concertante was composed in the aftermath of the Soviet government’s official condemnation of Prokofiev’s music in 1948. The work is not a casual listen; its frequent dark moods and jagged phrases seemingly indicative of the composer’s response to that judgment. Still, there are many rich, melodic sections intermittently breaking through in the ruminative first movement and the anguished second, ultimately dominating in the hope-filled third.

Few cellists can successfully conquer the composition’s extremes in tempos, rhythms, dynamics and emotions. Bailey’s mesmerizing, deeply committed performance puts this recording at the top, especially because of his warm, rounded tone and jaw-dropping clarity in lightning-speed runs. Equally impressive are Grant Llewellyn’s subtle, precise conducting and the N.C. Symphony’s alternately lush and spiky support. The recorded sound is vivid, crisp and spacious.

Filling out the CD is Prokofiev’s 1949 Cello Sonata, performed with pianist Natasha Paremski. The work shares some of the same darkness as the Sinfonia Concertante but there’s lyrical atmosphere in the first movement, jaunty humor in the second and sunny cheekiness in the third. Both players have beautiful tone in this engaging performance, their instruments recorded quite close, giving them vibrant intensity.


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New CD

Zuill Bailey