WALTON: Cello Concerto. STRAUSS: Don Quixote* / Zuill Bailey, cel; *Roberto Diaz, vla; North Carolina Symphony Orch.; Grant Llewellyn, cond / Steinway & Sons STNS30156
This latest CD from Zuill Bailey combines one 20th-century work not often performed with a classic tone poem for cello, viola and orchestra from the late 19th century. I give Bailey a lot of credit for moving at least a little outside of his “comfort zone” to play and record the Walton Cello Concerto, which is clearly one of the composer’s finest works. Written in 1956 to a commission by Gregor Piatagorsky, it was premiered by him in Boston on January 25, 1957. The harmonic language used here is much more sophisticated than that of most of Walton’s works from the 1930s and ‘40s, combining some of the harmonic style of Prokofiev and Stravinsky (particularly in his use of the woodwinds). More interestingly, the solo cello part seems to be a continuously moving and developing line of music, and in the first movement, at least, it is much more lyrical and less flashy than most of the familiar cello concertos.
Since lyrical music is one of Bailey’s strengths, this is right up his alley, and I’m happy to report that conductor Grant Llewellyn is with him every step of the way. The second movement is flashier but clearly not “just” a showpiece for the soloist; once again, the music moves and develops in quite interesting and complex ways. Bailey, like Piatagorsky, is a cellist whose forte is a bright, compact tone rather than the lush sounds one associates with Casals, Rostropovich or Colin Carr, thus this music almost sounds as if it were tailored for him. He retains a fullness of tone in the upper range but also brings that compact sound down into the low range as well, creating what one might term a uniform or continuous sound profile. This allows him to project the music emotionally, which he does, without drawing attention to his tone in either range. In short, he acts as a “clear channel” for Walton’s intentions without forcing his own personality on the music, yet, as I say, he puts plenty of feeling into it.
Bailey also uses vibrato in the manner of true 18th-century virtuosi, forsaking it for fast passages while displaying a quick, light vibrato on sustained notes. This exact same approach, then, would serve him well in the Haydn Cello Concerti. The Walton concerto ends with a fairly long theme and variations (13:26), and it is here, oddly enough, that the composer called for some of the more attention-grabbing effects from the soloist, including purposely rough bowing, a bit of portamento and spiccato, particularly in the one variation (which begins around the 5:00 mark) which sounds like a cadenza before moving into an edgy, fast-paced orchestral passage that has a hint of Latin rhythm to it. In the last, slow variation, Bailey finally allows himself to lay into his instrument’s low range to bring out more of its beauty of tone.
Llewellyn’s conducting was so good in the Walton concerto that I was really looking forward to the performance of Don Quixote, a piece that requires far more from the orchestra and conductor than mere accompaniment. This piece, often cited as Strauss’ masterpiece, is actually a large concerto grosso for the two instruments and orchestra built in the structure of a tone poem. The most successful recordings are those which had the best soloist-conductor relationship, among them the first complete recording by Italian cellist Enrico Mainardi with Strauss himself conducting, Emanuel Feuermann with Toscanini, Frank Miller with Toscanini (one of the warmest and most beautiful of the Maestro’s later recordings) and Paul Tortelier with Rudolf Kempe. Llewellyn takes a light, relaxed, almost pastoral approach to the music (much like Toscanini in 1953), which I always felt worked better than his faster, edgier approach in 1938 because, after all, this is a portrait of an old, deluded man living in his own imaginary world. But perhaps Llewellyn is a bit too relaxed in the opening section; during the oboe solo, the music loses its forward momentum and just sort of hangs in the air, though the conductor does pick things up again once the tempo increases. Once the soloists enter—Bailey on cello as Quixote and Roberto Diaz on viola as Sancho Panza—the atmosphere of the music subtly changes, which in turn leads to a drastic change as the orchestra depicts the Don’s “heroic deeds.” At this point, Llewellyn fully enters the spirit of the score, becoming more and more engaged as the narrative continues, and our two soloists also give more of themselves. Nonetheless, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the conductor and orchestra (but not the soloists) sort of went in and out of musical focus. It’s one thing to conduct a certain passage slowly for effect—both Kempe and late Toscanini did this—and quite another to let the rhythm slacken and threaten to collapse. Unfortunately, Llewellyn is not alone in doing this sort of thing. It’s a new style of conducting that permeates too much of the musical landscape, and I for one am not fond of it.
Thus, in the end, I had a rather less favorable impression of the Strauss performance than that of the Walton. It’s clearly not a really bad reading, but it’s not very good either. As I said above, Bailey and Diaz are fine throughout, the cellist moreso than the violist, but since their appearances in this score are intermittent it’s impossible for them to be the ones to sustain a continuous pulse in this music. For me, it was like watching a movie while the projector kept going in and out of focus.
These performances are both credited on the back cover as live performances, but since I was not provided a booklet to download I have no idea what the dates are. Recommended for the Walton Concerto, however.
—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley
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