J.S. BACH: Cello Suites Nos. 1-6, BWV 1007-1012 / Zuill Bailey, cel / Octave Records OCT-0008 (album contains 2 conventional CDs & 2 DVD audio discs)
Several years ago, I gave a rave review to Zuill Bailey’s Telarc recording of the Bach Cello Suites, thus I was grateful for a chance to review this new recording of them.
These new recordings are even better.
In his earlier recording, Bailey played with a beautiful but even tone; as he told me in an interview I conducted with him at the time, he was trying to “hypnotize the listener” by means of his light but shimmering vibrato. In these new performances, the “shimmering vibrato” is much more sparingly used, but in its place is a far more interesting, even occasionally dramatic interpretation of this oft-played music. Here, Bailey digs in deeper, uses more changes in dynamics (something not indicated one way or the other in Bach’s scores) and, most interesting of all, uses expertly-applied rubato effects.
To explain what I mean to those readers who don’t fully understand rubato: most people recognize it when the performer (or conductor) slows down the music slightly to elongate a note, but true rubato means that the performer should also make certain notes in the same phrase a little SHORTER in order to compensate for the notes that were elongated. After all, loosely translated, “rubato” means to “steal” part of the beat, and if one is going to add a little bit here one must also take away a little bit elsewhere.
In this respect, Bailey’s new recording of these cello pieces resembles Hungarian violinist Joseph Szigeti’s classic 1955-56 recordings of the Bach Sonatas and Partitas, a performance which I have since discovered and placed on my Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Classical Music as a highly recommended performance. No one today, unfortunately, plays the Bach violin pieces the way Szigeti did, and in my experience no cellist played, or plays, the Bach cello suites the way Bailey does here.
Ironically, according to a review by Larry Lapidus for the Spokesman-Review, these new interpretations came about due to a bout of depression that Bailey was feeling in 2020 due to the Coronavirus pandemic. At first, he withdrew from the world, “stopped listening to or studying or making music” and did not touch his cello, but when he did return it was to the Bach Suites. According to Lapidus:
When he returned to it, he turned first to the suites for solo cello by Bach, which he had studied and performed for decades. What poured out of him, however, was something radically new. He describes the experience as one more of “channeling” than performing. Bailey’s identity as a performer was formed within a society that was starkly different from that in which J.S. Bach produced his magnificent corpus of work.
All of these modifications that Bailey made to the music results in a more fluid and less rigid rhythmic feel. The music has a more legato flow in addition to being a far more dramatic and much more sensitive presentation of the scores. In short, his first recording was very good, but this new version is clearly a masterpiece, a benchmark against which all other performers of these suites, even the superb “shoulder cello” recording by Sergey Malov on Solo Musica, which I also dearly love, need to be judged.
The only other recording of these suites that comes close to this, but in a different manner, is the little-known version on Town Hall Records by Yehuda Hanani from the late 20th century, but in an A-B comparison I found Bailey to be even more sensitive and more dramatic than Hanani.
And there is something else that puts these recordings over the top: the sound. Using an array of super-sensitive microphones, Octave Records has captured the full range of Bailey’s sound, so perfectly, in fact, that it sounds as if he is in your living room playing for you. For you techies out there who will understand this better than I, they used the Merging Technologies Pyramix digital audio workstation and Hapi A/D and D/A converters. The mics used were an AEA R88, Royer SF-24 and Sennheiser MKH 800. The microphones were fed to Integer Audio RMP-1 and Forssell Technologies SMP-2b mic preamps. The feeds from the mics were mixed through a custom, modified Studer 962 analog console. ATC SCM50 and SCM 25 loudspeakers were employed for monitoring. (I gleaned this info from the PS Audio website.)
The end result is that you hear everything, including the slight rasp of the bow on the strings, the “zing” of the strings themselves. There were moments in these performances when I swear I could almost see Bailey sitting in front of me, playing (I did see him in person once at a CCM concert with pianist Awadagin Pratt, a frequent accompanist). Thanks to this almost 3D effect of the recording, even the smallest gesture, change of dynamics or phrasing makes listening to these suites a very powerful and emotional experience. You can even heard him breathing; it’s as if Bailey has gone beyond playing music and reached inside his soul, pulling out every feeling, good and bad, that he had within him and putting them into these performances.
Sadly, according to a poster’s comment on the Stereophile website, “The producer of this set, Thomas Moore, died recently of a brain tumor after being ill for a week. He, Friedrich, and Michael Bishop were the principals of Five/Four Productions. Bishop died a few months ago from an unspecified accident at home.”
The price for this set is quite steep, $58, because it also includes two DVD-Audio discs in addition to the two conventional CDs (I checked them on my computer, and the sound is identical in both formats). My regular readers know that I am generally a penny-pincher (you have to be when your only source of income is Social Security), but in this case I recommend that you bite the bullet and buy it. I absolutely guarantee you that, from both a performance and sound perspective, you will NOT be disappointed, but if you’d like to sample them first you can do so HERE on a YouTube video. I think you’ll agree with me. Perhaps, some day, they will be available as just the two conventional CDs at a lower price, but in the meantime, if you are someone who wants the best performances of the Bach Suites, this is it. Forget about the Telarc set; this is Zuill Bailey’s masterpiece as an artist.
—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley
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