Zuill Bailey, one of the world’s finest cellists, and Awadagin Pratt, concert pianist and the first person to graduate from the Peabody Conservatory with concentrations in three areas (piano, violin, and conducting), have performed together regularly since the late 1990s. They have just released their first recording as a duo: an all-Brahms CD on the Telarc label.
I could not help but be swept into the sonic lushness and variety of the duo’s playing when I heard the first strains of Lerchengesang (“Lark Song”), Op. 70 No. 2, the cello/piano transcription of a vocal piece that opens the recording. Bailey’s control of the cello’s tone color is superb: whether he is playing a gorgeous, lyrical section or a more aggressive passage, the cello’s sound is velvety and rich. Pratt’s playing is technically superb, beautifully voiced and, where appropriate, nicely supportive of the cello line. The engineers and producers should also be congratulated for the sonically rich and engaging recording they helped create.
The program contains some pieces written originally for cello and piano, notably Brahms’s Sonata in E Minor, op. 38, and Sonata in F Major, op. 99. One of the finer moments in the recording is the final movement of op. 38, which has a densely fugal texture; it is quite cerebral music, but Pratt and Bailey avoid playing the movement with the incessant, almost robotic forward motion that such writing often engenders. The F Major sonata, with its wandering to F# in the second movement, is also well-rendered. This reviewer especially enjoyed the opening of the Adagio Affetuoso movement; the chordal, mildly dissonant piano with the pizzicato cello has a brief jazz-inflected moment, a quality that is also present in some of Brahms’s later solo piano works.
These two larger works are interspersed with shorter pieces, mostly transcriptions of Brahms’s vocal works, whose lyricism translates quite well to the cello. Lerchengesang (“Lark Song”), Op. 70, No. 2, that opens the album is hushed and delicate; the duo performs it slightly slower than is customary, to great dramatic effect. Though the choice of Wiegenlied, Op. 49, No. 15 (also known as “Brahms’s Lullaby”) to close the album is fitting, and the piece is sonically as gorgeous as everything else on the album, I would have preferred that Pratt and Bailey dig further into Brahms’s collection of lieder for an equally suitable, lesser-known work to close the album.
Following is the promo video (courtesy of Concord Music Group):
Minor quibbles about repertoire aside, Brahms is a fantastic recording by two extremely talented performers. It is a rewarding listen for classical music aficionados and an engaging, approachable performance for everyone else.
These gentlemen hit it out of the ballpark with this release; as Bailey said, they "really caught the comet's tail..." It's Bailey's first recording with Pratt, through they've been playing together since 1998, and it's the first made in the Oberlin Conservatory of Music's new studio; Elaine Martone and Robert Woods were the producers.
The sound is intimate, rich and flattering; every note is clear, yet nothing is conspicuous. Bailey approaches the sonatas with a singer's spirit, and the resulting lyricism is perfectly complemented by the song transcriptions- "Lerchengesang," the opener, and the "Wie Melodien," are treasures. The arrangement of the Sonatensatz, Brahm's contribution to the violin sonata composed with Schumann and Albert Dietrich, is played with more fire than humor. The E Minor Sonata's second movement is elegant and caring, like a couple who can still find gentle things to say as they waltz, even after 30 years together. The Adagio of the F Major has one of the most romantic melodies Brahms ever wrote. The rubatos and phrasing are convincing- nothing is overdone, Bailey's tone is mellifluous, and the ensemble impeccable.
Audiophile Audition Hails Brahms
A happy combination of passion and lyrical ensemble marks this all-Brahms cello recital as a disc of decisive power.
Published on May 20, 2011
BRAHMS: Works for Cello and Piano = Lerchengesang, Op. 70, No. 2; Sonata in E Minor, Op. 38; Feldseinsamkeit, Op. 86, No. 2; Wie Melodien, Op. 105, No. 1; Sapphische Ode, Op. 94, No. 4; Liebestreu, Op. 3, No. 1; Sonata-Movement; Minnelied, Op. 71, No. 5; Sonata in F Major, Op. 99; Wiegenlied, Op. 49, No. 15 - Zuill Bailey, cello/Awadagin Pratt, piano
Telarc TEL-32664-02, 76:51 [Distr. by Concord Music] ****:
Cellist Zuill Bailey and collaborator Awadagin Pratt perform--at Oberlin Conservatory’s Clonick Hall, September 2010--the two “official” works by Johannes Brahms for solo cello and piano and a series of lieder transcriptions, including the 1853 Scherzo in C Minor composed for a joint-venture violin sonata shared by Robert Schumann and Albert Dietrich. Performing on a 1693 instrument crafted by Matteo Gofriller, Bailey makes a vividly lyric impression as a purveyor of the Brahms style.
Bailey opens with the “Lark Song” by Brahms, whose piano part sidles ethereally in the manner of the later intermezzos from Op. 117 and 119. The lied provides a kind of preparation for the dark-hued 1865 E Minor that follows, its low register exploited to create melodies of ballade-like power. Rarely does Bailey’s cello extend beyond the tenor register, and so the affect resembles that of a Baroque trio-sonata, given the piano’s separation of treble and bass parts. The first movement, taken in extremely broad strokes by Bailey and Pratt, the ruminative episodes serve to replace the “missing” slow movement in this piece. The rather manic sequences soon assume a gargantuan heft through the ministrations of our soloists, relenting only in the late pages as they transition to the cascading arpeggios to the colorful recapitulation. The neo-Classic Allegretto quasiMenuetto pays homage to the courtly life of Haydn or Boccherini, but its lilting phrases in sliding metrics--and broken-style riffs in the trio section--clearly embrace the nostalgic Romanticism endemic in Brahms. Pianist Pratt’s inclination for the fugal writing of J.S. Bach proves apt for the finale of the E Minor Sonata, an attempt by Brahms to imitate aspects of Bach’s The Art of Fugue. Even within the firm constraints of contrapuntal procedure, Bailey’s lyrically sweet tone exerts its capacity for song.
A quick foil to the superheated E Minor Sonata finale, the “Solitude in the Fields” from Op. 86 plays as wistful love song to Nature, akin to the sentiments in the first movement of Mahler’s D Major Symphony. The Wie Melodien from Op. 105 (1886) shares the autumnal affect we hear in the so-called “Thun” Violin Sonata, Op. 100. Sappho’s love song (1884) swells with mature sensuality, the keyboard’s maintaining a rocking pulse even as the harmonies melt in veiled conceits not far from Mallarme’s poetic universe. “True Love” (1853) offers an early Brahms song in which the stern cello line assumes the voice of a mother’s pleas for her daughter to abandon an unhealthy infatuation. The Scherzo from the FAE Sonata adapts easily to Bailey’s alternately breezy an rasping cello line, the fires identifiable as among the early Brahms efforts that fuse Beethoven’s Fifth motto, Schumann’s harmony, and his own stormy impulses. Another tender foil appears, here the Minnelied, Op. 71, No. 5, an ardent love song whose simple lilt would appeal to Elgar. The perennial Wiegenlied of 1868 maintains its beguiling charm, a magical evocation of innocence.
The 1887 F Major Sonata’s Herculean gestures open in the high soprano register, but the affect is no less prone to dip into the darker furors of the heart. The potent tremolos from the keyboard contribute to the assertive character of the development of each of the first movement’s three themes, of which the F-sharp Minor development becomes quite heated, another of the composer‘s “veiled symphonies.” Bailey and Pratt pull out the stops to ensure the undiluted espressivo in which they engage. A broadly resonant theme from Pratt underlines Bailey’s pizzicato notes for the beginning of the F-sharp Major Adagio. A lovely soprano melody wafts into space, especially glowing in this performance. A plunge into F Minor marks the darkly-animated central episode. Bailey’s pizzicati soon communicate as much angst as they had freedom. By the late pages, those same pizzicati might convey autumnal, rainy-day regrets. The metrically-shifting powerful Allegro passionato finds some balance for its martial cast in its sweet trio section. The relatively blithe Allegro molto finale could play as an anticlimax to the previous movements, but the directly expressivity of the playing exonerates Brahms of any glibness; and the dark color of the middle portion makes a claim on our reverence for unabashed pathos. The F-sharp Major evolution proves radiant, as this disc has been from the outset.
It's one thing to listen to Zuill Bailey, optimally recorded by Telarc, on a high-end sound system; it's another thing entirely to hear him live. The opportunity finally arose on May 1, when Bailey traveled to the San Francisco Bay Area to perform Dvorak's Cello Concerto with the Marin Symphony Orchestra under the leadership of Alasdair Neale.
Before the performance, Bailey told Greg Cahill of the Independent Journal, "The Dvorak is the torch, the greatest thing we have for cello and orchestra. It really gives everyone [in the orchestra] a moment to shine... There's so much inspiration and so many different avenues one can go as a player that you really go with the moment and let that vibe lead you."
Bailey was true to his word, his playing distinguished by its hushed inwardness and wide range of emotion. Backed by a band that was challenged to play softly, and failed to embrace either the subtler aspects of Dvorak's writing or its grand sweep, he resisted all temptation to plow through the work. Nor was he daunted by an acoustic that, even from a reasonable distance, drained color from his priceless instrument.
If the evening ultimately served to reinforce the blessings of Bailey's well-recorded Telarc catalog, it also enabled me to discover just how warm a human being he is when greeting his public post performance. It also sent me back to his latest CD with Awadagin Pratt, Brahms Works For Cello And Piano, to again revel in the gorgeous sound of his cello making poetry of Brahms.
As of this posting, he has one more date scheduled in Spain. But keep checking back for other opportunities to see him.
Twice in the last year I've experienced a transcendental performance of Bach by artist nailing their work to the door, as Martin Luther is reputed to have done with his 95 Theses, and the musical world is listening.
First I had the extraordinary good fortune to hear Simone Dinnerstein play the Goldberg Variations at the sensational new Koerner Hall at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. 90 minutes of musical bliss, encompassing the entire world through her deep study and full-blooded fingerwork. Dinnerstein has launched a major career on the back of her interpretations (different at each performance) of this greatest of all sets of variations.
I had not expected lightning to strike twice, but Zuill Bailey's intensive and prolonged study of the Cello Suites has culminated in this performance, recorded at the American Academy of Arts and Letters in New York back in December 2008, marks an equally impressive achievement. There have been many impressive performances of the Cello Suites over the years, starting of course with the great Pablo Casals. The versions that have satisfied me the most have been Pierre Fournier, Paul Tortelier and Anner Bylsma, who brought the Suites back to their roots in dance. Many tip their hats to Janos Starker and Pieter Wispelwey. For sheer beauty of sound, Yo Yo Ma may claim top spot, but I find little else to enjoy in his performance.
Zuill Bailey takes extraordinary risks in this performance and is never afraid of the consequences. He reminds me of Schnabel in the Beethoven Sonatas. He plays the Suites with all the passion, speed and articulation that he sees in his mind's eye. For Schnabel this works 99% of the time, but sometimes his fingers just cannot keep up with his imagination. Nevertheless this is a wonderful way to do it, because he gets the music right even when he gets the notes wrong. Here in the Cello Suites, Bailey's fingers somehow manage to keep up without any obvious lapses, although from time to time you feel things are likely to come off the rails soon.
The key word for these performances is passion. This quality, combined with strength of purpose and a granite-like integrity, fits perfectly into my own personal view of Bach. This is not just a romantic interpretation like Rostropovich, nor a classical dance-based reading like Bylsma, nor a poetic and steely version like Fournier, but a version that wraps the best of all those elements together.
The Second Suite in E-Flat Major, BWV 1008 is an exemplar of the earlier, more straightforward writing in this set, and Bailey's strong, powerful string tone (produced on the 1693 Ex "Mischa Schneider" Matteo Gofriller cello) lays out the strong lines and dance rhythms brilliantly and with great clarity and dignity throughout. The full extent of Bailey's achievement is revealed only in the later more complex suites, culminating in the Sixth Suite in D Major, BWV 1012. The perfection of the overall phrasing and all the micro details and inflections within it reveal staggeringly clear lines while sudden stops and brutally powerful open string resonances point up and color the notes on the page in a vibrant and all-involving dance.
I'm a great lover of extreme virtuosity when I find it in service of the music and not just an end in itself. Well, to be honest, even then! But here we have virtuosity enabling an electrifying performance that would not otherwise be possible. This is as far from Ma as it is possible to be, and closest of all to Fournier in conception, although by no means defined by that influence.
This is most certainly a young man's Bach. Bailey has already declared his intention to record the Bach Suites twice more at different stages of his career, and I will be most interested to see what changes the years bring. So yes, American cellist Zuill Bailey takes his place proudly alongside Simone Dinnerstein as an outstanding young talent in the sublime music of Bach. You can also hear them together in their new recording of the complete Beethoven Cello Sonatas, also available on the Telarc label.
Telarc have provided wonderful sound here with an enormous dynamic range and color. For that we must thank Producer and Engineer Adam Abeshouse, Executive Producer Robert Woods and Mastering Engineer Bruce Leek. Their work allows us to fully appreciate this magnificent performance.