SCHUMANN: Cello Concerto in A min. BRAHMS: Double Concerto for Violin & Cello.* BLOCH: From Jewish Life: 1. Prayer (arr. O’Neill). BRUCH: Kol Nidrei / Zuill Bailey, cel; *Philippe Quint, vln; *North Carolina Symphony Orch.; *Grant Llewellyn, cond; Philharmonia Orchestra; Robin O’Neill, cond / Steinway & Sons STNS30123
Zuill Bailey, one of my favorite cellists—his recording of the Beethoven Sonatas with Simone Dinnerstein is, in my view, the best ever—here presents one of the real gems of the classical literature, the Schumann Concerto, along with the Brahms “Double” and short pieces by Bloch and Bruch.
His approach to the former, conducted by Robin O’Neill with the Philharmonia Orchestra, is quite different from the performance by Jacqueline du Pré with Leonard Bernstein and even from that by Oren Shevlin with Heinz Holliger in Audite’s set of Schumann’s complete orchestral music. With his compact but warm tone and expressive playing, he is more emotional than Shevlin but not quite as overwhelming as du Pré, but part of this is conditioned by his accompaniment. O’Neill’s pacing and shaping of the work is more direct and linear than Bernstein, who was possibly the most hyper-emotional and overwrought conductor of all time, but not as crisp and compact as Holliger, and this in turn influences Bailey’s approach. He works within the framework of the conductor’s vision, and does so in a way that recalls, at least for me, Emanuel Feuermann although Feuermann never recorded this specific work (although he did record Schumann’s Zigeunerlieben). Bailey has a similar compact tone, using a quick vibrato, equally adroit fingering, and an approach that satisfies emotionally without going over the top. I found that I liked it nearly as much as du Pré and better than Shevlin.
The sound profile of the Philharmonia has certainly changed over the years. From the time of its inception in 1946 until at least the mid-1980s, their hallmark sound was a rare combination of warmth and clarity. Under the best conductors one could hear every strand of the music, yet their characteristic warmth was always there as well. What I hear in this recording is a more compact sound—one might say, in comparison with older orchestras, Szell’s Cleveland Orchestra of the 1960s. It’s a good sound, but not as individual.
Both O’Neill and Bailey make something special of the second movement, however, again without overdoing the emotion but not sparing it either. I was quite happy to hear this kind of performance, as I felt that some of the conductors Bailey has worked with on past recordings (i.e., Jun Märkl) were not entirely sympathetic to his aesthetic. Both approach the third movement in an almost playful manner, which suits the music very well.
Yet as good as this performance is, it sounds like a warmup for what follows: a live performance of the Brahms Double Concerto with violinist Philippe Quint and the astonishingly excellent North Carolina Symphony. Although there is a bit more relaxation than I like in the soloists’ first duo-cadenza, this is a taut reading that pulls the structure of the work together brilliantly. Conductor Grant Llewellyn draws an even more emotional and powerful reading from his forces than O’Neill did in the Schumann, and that surprised me quite a bit. When Quint re-enters to join Bailey, the two of them are performing at a peak level of emotion. and the effect is wonderful. Bailey’s pacing and shaping of the music is extraordinary, allowing you to hear the structure of the music as well as its emotional effect. The Quint-Bailey duo’s entrance in the second movement is sheer perfection, both in terms of balancing the instruments and musical expression. The last movement is just a shade slower than I like it, but effective nonetheless.
The Bloch Prayer, also accompanied by O’Neill and the Philharmonia, is one of those nice Jewish pieces that cellists like to play. Bruch’s Kol Nidrei, though similar on the face of it, is actually a more interesting work. In this one piece, however, I felt that O’Neill’s conducting was just a bit too cool and detached, though Bailey is not.
Overall, however, this is clearly one of Bailey’s finest albums to date, one that shows him in a number of Romantic settings.
—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley
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