News and Observer
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.
ZUILL BAILEY/Prokofiev: There's a lot of egghead stuff that is under pining the genesis of the modern classical works here and how they came about in tortured fashion, but in this short attention span world, the back story isn't going to help you enjoy this presentation any more. Finding a new piano foil to play off, Bailey, the classical cello category killer, faces off against the North Carolina Symphony Orchestra in an incredible presentation of music as art that really deserves to be on the next Grammy ballot. If listening to this red hot session doesn't make you feel like a grown up, go back to your PBR and tell us how your team is number one. A winner throughout.
“Arpeggione,” transcriptions and an original work for cello and guitar – Zuill Bailey, David Leisner
What a splendid idea this is, a virtuoso recital for guitar and cello! Most of the items on the program have been transcribed for the self-same genre by David Leisner, and are heard in their première recordings. Leisner, one of the finest guitarists of our time, has made intelligent transcriptions that allow both instruments to be heard to best advantage. At the same time, he knows when to step out of the spotlight in favor of the rich eloquent sound of Zuill Bailey’s cello as it soars to expressive heights that other cellists can only dream of matching. Zuill obviously loves playing his instrument as few people enjoy doing anything else, and the results are abundantly evident in a very attractive program that melds the sounds of two dissimilar string instruments, bowed and strummed, to utter perfection.
The title of the album is taken from Franz Schubert’s Sonata in A minor, D821, known as the “Arpeggione” after a very short-lived instrument of that name that was basically a guitar that was fretted to permit it to be bowed. Schubert knew the inventor and obligingly composed the only masterwork for that decidedly odd instrument that it was ever to enjoy. Today, it is always played in transcription for other instruments, usually for cello but also for viola, clarinet, harp, double bass, and even tuba and euphonium.
The present recording is the 121st in the current catalog, and may be the most satisfying yet in terms of the fine blend and mutual rapport Leisner and Bailey display here. One thrilling moment occurs in the opening movement when the wistfully melancholy cello melody gives way suddenly to a lively and sensational Hungarian dance with thumping chords from the guitar in support. The Adagio, a meditation on a hymn-like subject, is followed by the finale, an allegretto rich in rapturous and charming incidents.
Manuel de Falla’s Seven Spanish Popular Songs is another work that has enriched multiple repertoires besides the original version for soprano voice and piano. The transcription heard here was not solely Leisner’s but is based on the guitar arrangement by Falla’s friend Miguel Llobet and a cello version by Maurice Maréchal. Leisner adapted the melody of the Song Seguidilla murciana from the original vocal line to that of the cello by discretely changing octaves in order to avoid repeated notes. This is one type of Flamenco. Jota (#4) is another. Asturiana (#3) is said to have been sung by miners, grateful at seeing the beauty of the starlit sky after a long underground shift. Nana is a tender lullaby, and Polo a song expressing the anger of a jilted lover. Canción (Song) perhaps lends itself best of all to Bailey’s exalted lyricism.
Next up is the world premiere recording of Leisner’s Twilight Streams, a new work written expressly for himself and Zuill Bailey. The titles show the influence of Chinese philosophy and painting: empty dark, full dark, empty light, full light and adrift at twilight. “Empty” in the oriental sense is not the same as in ours, for it implies a place where all things go to be reborn. As the work progresses, we get a wonderful lift from these artists, as well as a growing sense of freedom.
There follow no fewer than four encores, beginning with Gluck’s Dance of the Blessed Spirits, Saint-Saëns’ The Swan, and the “Aria” from Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasileiras # 5. All are justly famed for their exalted beauty. At the end, we have the ultimate encore: Niccolò Paganini’s Variations for the fourth string on the aria "Dal tuo stellato soglio" from Mosè in Egitto by Rossini. How the devil you can play this piece, as memorable in musical terms as it is virtuosic, on a single violin or cello string is better seen than described (fortunately, there are several YouTube videos that you can easily access). Finger work, particularly the swooping glides involving widely spaced fingers, is the key to success, more so than bowing. This altogether sensational encore will have you on the edge of your seat!
Double concertos are among the least common of genres in the repertoire of Western music, and of course triple concertos are even more rare; it is definitely an uncommon treat to hear both on the same program. This is exactly what the NC Symphony did – with a trio of fantastic and world-renowned soloists, they performed the most well-known triple concerto, Beethoven's Op. 56, and one of the most well-known double concertos, Brahms' Op. 102. The concert was already bound to be fantastic with pianist Awadagin Pratt, violinist Philippe Quint, and cellist Zuill Bailey, but the added element of live recording for future release by Five/Four Productions gave these performances even more weight. This is the NC Symphony's third recording with Bailey. Quint and Pratt have graced the NC Symphony stage many times as well. Previous recordings have soared to the top of the Billboard and New York Times classical charts; this recording is bound to be monumental upon release.
Without three soloists that work seamlessly together, a performance of Beethoven's Triple Concerto for piano, violin, cello, and orchestra would be next to impossible. Of course, this was not a problem for the talented artists and the NC Symphony under the baton of Grant Llewellyn. The concerto is extremely demanding technically, especially in the first movement (Allegro), where frequent passages of rapid patterns are played in harmony between the violin and cello. These patterns require absolute uniformity of expression, executed perfectly by Quint and Bailey. Meanwhile, Pratt's articulations in similar passages were incredibly unwavering too, translating the phrasing to an instrument with a completely different timbre.
The overall theme of the first movement is joyful and decidedly major, with little dissonance. The interplay among the soloists and orchestra was fascinating to behold – there was so much to take in at once, especially in the energetic first movement. The resulting texture is incredibly unique. Most frequently, the theme began with Quint, who traded to Bailey, and then to Pratt; these exchanges seemed effortless despite the necessary amount of concentration and musical engagement required.
The second movement, Largo, gave rise to a mellow and romantic melody; Quint's sense of lyricism and Bailey's articulate expression were especially apparent here. The piano was more independent in this movement, and Pratt's sweeping arpeggios moved gently up and down the keys. The third movement, Rondo alla pollaca, is a delightful romp containing the most energetic material of the work as a whole. The rondo theme is naturally dance-like, reminiscent of the Polish polonaise. Suddenly, triple meter turns to a wildly fast duple, with flying figures traded brilliantly amongst all three soloists. Of course, the rondo theme then returns with an ending of bold, triumphant chords.
Brahms' Concerto in A minor for violin, cello, and orchestra is his last large-scale orchestral work. It contrasts Beethoven's concerto in that there are many changing textures and moods within each movement. In addition, there are more truly cadenza-like solos throughout. The beginning of the Allegro movement is mysterious – a pizzicato cello creates this mood, and the violin has a similar solo shortly after. This movement contains fascinating melodic progression – moving from a solemn and strong mood to capricious major mode and back again. The two soloists frequently exchanged parts of the melody back and forth, and the movement ended grandly with a minor cadence after an increase in urgency and energy.
The second movement, Andante, contains a soaring and falling melody, led by the soloists frequently in unison. This movement, perhaps more than any other, is a kind of music that listeners can let wash over them – it is fully engrossing due to its detail, yet strikingly beautiful. The final movement, Vivace non troppo, is grand and playful, with quickly moving patterns and an accented theme for the rondo. Every time this theme returns, it is more boundless and bolder than the last. For the soloists, this movement was a whirlwind; the violin and cello wove in and out of one another as well as with the orchestra.
The dramatic and breathless ending brought the house immediately to its feet, recognizing the absolute mastery and unparalleled musical sensitivity of all three performers that evening.