Zuill Bailey’s Prokofiev

02 - Bailey Prokofiev cover

PROKOFIEV: Sinfonia Concertante in E min.* Cello Sonata in C+ / Zuill Bailey, cel; *North Carolina Symphony Orch.; Grant Llewellyn, cond; +Natasha Paremski, pno / Steinway & Sons 30057

This CD came out in 2016, the very first year of my blog, but since I wasn’t yet established enough to receive downloads or physical copies for review I missed it, thus I’m reviewing it now.

Zuill Bailey has been one of my favorite cellists since I first heard him on the old St. Paul Sunday radio program about 15 years or so ago, and he has remained a favorite ever since. His lean, burnished tone and elegant style reminds me a great deal of Emanuel Feuermann, who is one of my all-time favorite cellists (see, in The Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Classical Music, Collections – F), thus I am generally open to reviewing most of what he records. His Telarc recordings of the Bach Cello Suites and Beethoven Cello Sonatas (plus extras) are my recommended recordings of those works, or at least the Telarc Bach was until I heard his new recording for Octave which I just reviewed.

Like most established classical musicians, however, Bailey is circumspect in the amount of modern music he will play, and this is a shame because his style is perfect for the great modern works out there. Prokofiev was clearly a modern in his day, thus I was glad to have a chance to hear this disc, but I’d love to hear him do more.

The Sinfonia Concertante is a late work, composed in 1950-52 for Prokofiev’s new friend, cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, who premiered the work. The second movement in particular is very technically challenging for the performer, but Bailey rises to the occasion to produce a performance not only of technical mastery but of emotional power, which I rather expected he would. The sonics are crystal-clear and do not overdo the reverb that seems to be so much in fashion nowadays, and this helps us hear every detail in this splendid performance although in some places the sound is a bit clinical. The highest accolade I can pay Bailey is that, from both a technical and emotional standpoint, he comes very close to Rostropovich though the Russian cellist had a rounder, less pointed tone. This contrast between their personal styles can be best appreciated in the middle section of the second movement, where Bailey plays with just enough vibrato to give the music color whereas Rostropovich flooded the listener’s ear with his deeper sound. Both are valid and effective, thus this recording makes a fine counterpart to the creator’s performance.

I must also praise the work of conductor Grant Llewellyn and the North Carolina Symphony. Gone are the days when you had to use a “big name” orchestra to play a work like this with a great orchestral sound; the level of playing of orchestras worldwide has risen to such a high level nowadays that you normally don’t even blink an eye when you see a less-well-known orchestra on a record sleeve. The orchestra matches Bailey in both technique and intensity point for point and section for section. Nothing escapes the array or AEA, Senken and Sennheiser microphones used to capture this performance, thus the exceptional orchestral detail that Llewellyn draws from his orchestra is faithfully and clearly etched on the listener’s ear and mind.

In addition to all this, Bailey and Llewellyn bring out the structure of the music in a way that is dazzling; one hears not only all the notes but the way the phrases in each movement complement each other, presenting a unified whole. This is particularly important in this work, where each movement includes different sections in contrasting tempi and moods.

The Cello Sonata dates from a little earlier, in 1948, and was one of the works that brought the serious charge of “formalism” down on the composer’s head. At the opening of the first movement, Bailey does his very best Rostropovich imitation, producing a rich, luscious low sonority that infuses the opening with its quite serious mien. This performance is just as good and just as intense as the one on YouTube by Sol Gabetta, but the Gabetta is a live concert and this is a studio recording. That Bailey was able to maintain such a high level of intensity in the studio says a great deal for him, and he was fortunate to have the equally intense Natasha Paremski as his pianist. She gives her part of the music a tremendous amount of passion and forward momentum, thus providing an ideal accompaniment to Bailey’s almost Russian-sounding interpretation. Oddly, the second movement  sports a theme for the piano that sounds for all the world like a variation on the American song, Dixie (certainly in terms of the rhythm of the notes). Here, then, and also in the last movement, Prokofiev displays a sort of late-period playfulness in his music which we now appreciate much more than audiences did in his time.

This is a splendid CD and will surely be my reference recording of these works.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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