Zuill Bailey Plays Haydn

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HAYDN: Cello Concertos Nos. 1 & 2 / Zuill Bailey, cel; Philharmonia Orchestra; Robin O’Neill, cond / Steinway & Sons STNS30094 (also available for streaming on iTunes and Spotify)

The transformation of Zuill Bailey from a young, dynamic and respected but not internationally famous cellist to one of the top names in the world has been, for me personally, one of the most satisfying things in recent years. I’ve been a fan of his since he was on the old St. Paul Sunday radio program on NPR back in the early 2000s, playing outstanding versions of the cello repertoire, through his Telarc years where he finally became something of a household name in America, to his present-day status. And he deserves every bit of it.

These wonderful performances of the Haydn Cello Concerti compare quite favorably to the marvelous performance of No. 2 left us by the late, great Emanuel Feuermann, and like Feuermann, Bailey plays with a pure tone using a quick vibrato throughout rather than the ahistorical “straight tone” so much in vogue nowadays. This gives his playing heart, and his close attention to the use of dynamics gives his playing great color. Like Feuermann, he also occasionally employs a minimal portamento (you can hear this a couple of times in the slow movement of Concerto No. 1) which is also proper style. It’s the kind of playing that does not so much grab you by the throat as it draws the listener inward. Bailey can be quite dynamic when he wants to be, but more often than not he seduces. This was a feature of his playing that impressed me so deeply on those old radio broadcasts, particularly in the first movement he played of the Debussy Cello Sonata so long ago—a work I still wish he’d record complete!

And happily, he has here a conductor who is on his wavelength (not the case in all of his concerto recordings, alas). Robin O’Neill, whose work I did not previously know, leads the Philharmonia Orchestra in a performance that uses very little if any string vibrato, but still manages to play with dynamic inflection and a sense of musicality. He is the perfect foil for Bailey here, matching him in his sensitivity of phrasing as well as rhythmic drive. Listen, for instance, to the fast final movement of these concerti, where both cellist and orchestra are in perfect synch, particularly in the rapid passages where lightness of touch is so important. It reminds me of the splendid performance he gave of the Haydn Cello Sonata No. 1 with one of his favorite partners, pianist Awadagin Pratt. They are so tightly interconnected that they breathe the music together. And just listen to the spectacular way he plays the cadenza in the first movement of Concerto No. 2! This is truly spectacular yet still lyrical. Pure Zuill Bailey.

This album is a must for Haydn fanciers as well as for all Zuill Bailey fans. Chalk up another outstanding album to his growing discography.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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