Reviews

NICO MUHLY: Cello Concerto; ERNEST BLOCH: Schelomo; Three Jewish Poems – Zuill Bailey, cello/Indianapolis Sym. Orch./Jun Märkl – Steinway & Sons 30049 [Distr. by Naxos] (1/13/15) 64:53 ****:

A very good reason to hear this release is to hear the wonderful playing of Zuill Bailey. I have heard Mr. Bailey but once before in his amazing recording of the Britten Cello Symphony, but he is a compelling artist. Bailey is gifted with a beautiful tone, fabulous technique and sensitive interpretation.

Of the three works here, Ernst Bloch’s Schelomo (Hebraic Rhapsody for Cello and Orchestra) is the war horse. This long, plaintive and dramatic tone poem (almost) for cello and orchestra takes its inspiration from The Book of Ecclesiastes and, in this work, the cello is intended to be the voice of Solomon as the work weaves its way, luxuriously; sometimes mournfully, through three section; an opening rhapsody, a middle which utilizes an old German-Jewish melody, from Bloch’s childhood, Kodosh Attoh and a final, desperate utterance from the cello as Solomon cries for humanity. I have heard this work many times, including once with Zara Nelsova. Bailey’s performance here ranks with the best.

Bloch’s Three Jewish Poems is another of the works for cello and orchestra that the composer thought of as his “Jewish Cycle” (which were written over fifteen years beginning in 1911 with this work, continuing with Schelomo and Baal Shem and culminating in 1926 with The Voice in the Wilderness. Almost all of Bloch’s work speaks to his heritage and his own personal experiences growing up in central Europe. This particular work was new to me and I find it lovely and quite personal. The three movements each carry a different tone: Danse and Rite both have a very ceremonial sound to them while the last, Cortège funèbre, was written specifically to commemorate Bloch’s father.

One of the best reasons to acquire this recording is to hear the new and scintillating Cello Concerto by the young American composer Nico Muhly. Muhly is a graduate of Columbia and has been writing music since he was barely in junior high school. He studied with John Corigliano and Christopher Rouse (to help underscore his youth!)  I have heard some of his music before, most notably his opera Two Boys and his chamber work Drones. What I have heard I like a great deal. His style is refreshingly hard to describe but is consistently colorful and captivating. The middle Part Two to his Concerto is especially lovely and makes maximum use of a drone that evolves into a tinkling a metallic percussion and brass. The finale is a bright, propulsive example of what the composer calls “process music” – in this case a highly engaging style that carries some John Adams-like riffs into near-jazz territory. This is a wonderful work and, honestly, I would get this recording for just this piece.

Regardless, Bailey’s work on all of these bona fide showpieces is ecstatic and I haven’t heard the Indianapolis Symphony in a while (not since Raymond Leppard to be honest) but they are a first class orchestra and German conductor Jun Märkl gets some great results from them. I enjoyed this disc a lot and Steinway & Sons (also new to me as their recording division) produces a very full sounding recording with very helpful packaging.

—Daniel Coombs

 

NCS' "Russian Spectacular" Lives up to its Advance Billing

Lisa-Marie Mazzucco

Zuill Bailey

 
February 20, 2015 - Raleigh, NC:

 

There was a lot going on both outside and inside Meymandi Concert Hall on the wretchedly cold first night of the North Carolina Symphony's current pair of Raleigh Classical Series concerts. Although the sidewalks had been cleared of ice, early arrivers who parked on the street were offered lifts to the front door. A pre-concert lecture by resident scholar William Robin drew a substantial audience to the small space at the northwest corner of the Swalin Lobby. (He said nothing about the new work that was originally intended for performance on this occasion.) Downstairs, in the Betty Ray McCain Gallery, violin students from Ligon Middle School and Enloe High School (Hallie Turner, Abby Hall, Eliza Ma, and Daniel Hong, with pianist Elizabeth Hess) offered music by Bach, Mozart, and Vivaldi. Inside the auditorium, musicians placed flowers in a basket on a chair as they came onto the stage; the program contained an insert concerning the loss on the previous Monday of long-time violinist Jess Isaiah Levin, and the evening began with a stirring tribute to him by bassist Bruce Ridge, speaking on behalf of the orchestra, followed by a profoundly moving performance of the "Nimrod" section of Elgar's Enigma Variations.*

The program embraced four distinguished works by Russian composers: Glazunov's Overture to Borodin's opera Prince Igor came first, followed by Borodin's "In the Steppes of Central Asia" and Rimsky-Korsakov's "Russian Easter Overture." The second half was devoted to Prokofiev's Sinfonia concertante with Texas-based, Virginia-born cellist Zuill Bailey, a frequent visitor to the region, as the soloist. Grant Llewellyn conducted. The place bristled with at least 20 microphones and maybe more, as the Prokofiev was being recorded for probable commercial release. (A CD of Britten's Cello Symphony by Bailey and the NCS stemmed from similar concert recordings.)

It may be worth noting that the Metropolitan Opera omitted the Prince Igor overture entirely in its recent production of the opera; click here for details. That said, the NCS' performance had a lot going for it, and there's much to admire in the piece as wrestled to the ground by Glazunov after Borodin's death. (To read Glazunov's statement about the process, click here.) In addition, the Overture contains many tunes that were surely familiar to members of the audience, since large chunks of Borodin's music were lifted for the great Broadway musical Kismet.

There followed "In the Steppes…" (also exploited for Kismet), a lovely little tone poem** with – as Robin had explained – some political overtones that are muted in the final musical product. (Those overtones include mingling of Russian and "Asian" themes with the Russian tune dominating the work's finale.) This too was quite lovely as played on this occasion, with superior execution from the musicians of the orchestra and comfortable leadership from Llewellyn, who seemed to be allowing the instrumentalists freer rein than he sometimes does.

Rimsky-Korsakov's Overture is one of the more spectacular items in the Russian orchestral canon, and it certainly fit the program's overall billing. There have been more exciting performances, but in this somewhat relaxed reading there were many delights from throughout the orchestra, and the clarity and definition left little to be desired. (For a fascinating alternate "take" on this music, readers are urged to hear the 1953 Stokowski version, in which the conductor substitutes a bass soloist for the lines generally played by the trombone.)

Part two was devoted to a performance of Prokofiev's Sinfonia concertante, that master's important work for cello and orchestra, based on an earlier concerto and completed in cooperation with the great Mstislav Rostropovich and premiered by him the year after the composer's death. (Poor Prokofiev! He died the same day as Stalin, so the news received little coverage at home.)

Begging the indulgence of our readers, I am compelled to say that I heard Rostropovich perform in London nearly 50 years ago, in a series of festival concerts in which the soloist played 30+ major works for cello and orchestra, culminating in Britten's Cello Symphony. For me, however, the Russian scores were the absolute highlights, and I have talked ever since about the passion and commitment of Rostropovich's playing – these renditions were and remain among the most exceptional musical experiences of my life.

That said I am pleased to report that Bailey paled little in comparison and excelled in many instances in technical and artistic terms and particularly in the lyricism he projected. The orchestra was not quite as animated as I recall the LSO having been, under Gennady Rozhdestvensky's baton,*** but this Raleigh performance was revelatory in many respects, so here's hoping a CD release will indeed be forthcoming in the near future. The work itself is somewhat episodic and in places almost fragmentary, but Bailey and Llewellyn seemed in complete accord with regard to the several component sections, and the overall arch, from the tense opening measures to the second part's skirmishes (borrowing Felix Aprahamian's operative word) to the exhilarating finale (there being no other way to describe it), was readily apparent throughout.

Bailey threw himself into the performance, at times bringing to mind Rostropovich's almost demonic approach, in which he oftentimes seemed barely able to wait during orchestral passages before resuming his own playing.

The sole downside was a feeling (from seats on the right-hand side of the hall, on the floor) that there was not always enough cello sound, this serving as a reminder that, much as we like Meymandi Concert Hall, it is not a perfect venue by any means, so some re-evaluation of its acoustics at some point would most surely pay handsome dividends. The recording will be better, as the balance between the orchestra and the solo instrument will likely be remedied throughout – and chances are good that the aural experience was also entirely different elsewhere in the hall (as, for instance, at the front of the upper balcony – which on this particular evening appeared to be basically empty).

Nonetheless this was indeed a spectacular evening, handsomely realized, and it was particularly gratifying to have our state orchestra with its Welsh conductor and an American cellist go head-to-head in Russian music against the Mariinsky's recent Chapel Hill concerts and do so well!

This program will be repeated on Saturday, February 21, in the same venue. I'm tempted to go hear it again – yes, it was that good. Those who missed it could hardly do better than to call immediately for tickets and make the trek downtown! For details, see the sidebar. And for still more information, click here for the orchestra's own preview.

Bloch: Schelomo (CD review)

Also, Three Jewish Poems; Muhly: Cello Concerto. Zuill Bailey, cello; Jun Markl, Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. Steinway & Sons 30049.

I've always thought of the three sections of Bloch's Schelomo ("Solomon") as representing birth, life, and death, but I suppose I'm just too simplistic (or simpleminded). Swiss-born American Jewish composer Ernest Bloch (1880-1959) described his Hebraic Rhapsody for Cello and Orchestra as a "psychoanalysis" of his own creative process, saying that the solo cello represents King Solomon and the orchestra the world around us, and the whole thing represented his own life experience. In another way of looking at it, the solo cello expresses Solomon's words as expressed in the Book of Ecclesiastes 1:2-9, and the orchestra reflects his inner thoughts. Fair enough.

Schelomo is the first item on this album from cellist Zuill Bailey, conductor Jun Markl, and the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, an album that also includes Bloch's Three Jewish Poems and a premiere recording of Nico Muhly's new Cello Concerto.

But first, Schelomo. Bloch wrote it in 1916-17, one of the composer's "Jewish Cycle." Bloch wrote of this period in his composing life, "I do not propose or desire to attempt a reconstruction of the music of the Jews or to base my work on melodies more or less authentic. It is rather the Hebrew spirit that interests me, the complex, ardent, agitated soul that vibrates for me in the Bible."

Bailey's playing is rhapsodic, and his Solomon sounds genuinely profound, brooding, and sorrowful. Everything about the soloist's performance and the orchestral accompaniment seems letter-perfect to convey Bloch's despairing moods and tone shifts. This is, in fact, one of the most-powerful readings of the score I've heard, powerful emotionally as well as powerful musically. Bailey has always appeared to me a rather forceful player, his cello always dominating a performance, and here he finds a perfect piece for his style. He simply becomes Solomon.

The first of two couplings on the album is a new work by Nico Muhly (b. 1981), Cello Concerto, here finding its world-premiere recording. Muhly himself describes it as "something formally traditional (fast-slow-fast) but with steadily developing content. The first movement is angular, the second supple and the third motoric; there is constant progression and no looking back."

Zuill Bailey
Muhly's new work is obviously more modern than Bloch's, and one has to get used to its often sharper, more jarring qualities. Nevertheless, Bailey and his cello easily negotiate its insistent rhythms and occasional lyrical passages, and even if you don't care for the music, it at least keeps one's interest throughout. The second, slow movement is especially fascinating as it develops a shimmering line that gets more conspicuous as the decorative frills fall away and leave it to bask in the beauty of its own unpretentiousness. The final movement seems almost playful by comparison to the music that precedes it. Although I didn't find it a particularly memorable work, it's certainly fun while it lasts.

Then it's back to Bloch with the program's concluding work, his Three Jewish Poems for orchestra. These pieces have always seemed to me more Jewish than most of Bloch's other Jewish music, more freely infused with traditional Jewish folk tunes and inflections, perhaps because they were the earliest of Bloch's "Jewish Cycle." Markl and the Indianapolis Symphony do a good job keeping all of it fresh and alive, joyous or solemn as the situation demands.

One of the finest production teams in the country made the disc: Producer Thomas C. Moore and engineer Michael Bishop of Five/Four Productions, Ltd. They recorded the music at Hilbert Circle Theater, Indianapolis, and Clonick Hall Studio, Oberlin Conservatory of Music in August and November 2013. The sound is, in a word, superb. It's as realistically natural as you could want, with both the cello and the orchestra appearing to be in the same room with you. There's an almost startlingly lifelike quality present, the strings vibrant, the cello rich and mellow, the midrange transparency excellent, the air and space and ambience just right. Highs are well extended; bass is deep and solid; dynamics are strong and wide; I could go on. Suffice to say, this is among the best-sounding new recordings I've heard in quite a while.

At a casual glance, the pairing of Nico Muhly’s 2012 Cello Concerto with “Schelomo” and the “Three Jewish Poems” of Ernest Bloch might seem an odd combination. But listen to the world premiere recording of this lush, invigorating score in context, and the relationships become clearer. Muhly’s music has often been suffused with a luxuriant beauty that is unafraid — for better or worse — of teetering into sentimentality, and it’s a quality that his concerto shares with the score that Bloch subtitled a “Hebraic Rhapsody.” In the first two conjoined movements, Muhly sends the soloist — here an impassioned and stalwart Zuill Bailey — into long-breathed oratory against a fragrant, shimmering orchestral backdrop; the music keeps tiptoeing up to the border of preciousness, only to pull back in the nick of time. As if to clear the air, Muhly winds up with a bright-toned, light-footed finale that blends Steve Reich with Mendelssohn. Bailey’s playing is strong-limbed and sensitive throughout, and there are well-judged contributions by the Indianapolis Symphony under conductor Jun Märkl. — Joshua Kosman

 

NICO MUHLY

CELLO CONCERTO

ZUILL BAILEY; INDIANAPOLIS SYMPHONY

STEINWAY & SONS

New CD

Zuill Bailey