Zwilich’s Cello Concerto Released


ZWILICH: Concerto for Cello & Orchestra.1 Peanuts Gallery for Piano & Orchestra.2 Romance for Violin & Chamber Orchestra.3 Prologue and Variations for String Orchestra / 1Zuill Bailey, cel; 2Elizabeth Dorman, pno; 3Joseph Edelberg, vln; Santa Rosa Symphony Orch.; Francesco Lecce-Chong, cond / Delos DE3596

This CD combines the first recording of Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s 2020 Cello Concerto with older works from her vast catalog. As good as these other pieces are, it would have been nice to have had recordings of pieces that are not already out there on other discs. I’m sure that she has other orchestral works in her catalog that could have been used.

But that is just me talking, and the cello concerto is clearly good enough to have warranted its commercial release. Zwilich’s well-known combination of tonal, melodic music with modes and modern harmonies tossed in for flavor are clearly on display here, but so too is Zuill Bailey’s cello. In fact, except for his second recording of the Bach Cello Suites, issued a few months ago, I can’t recall hearing any other recording by him that so perfectly captures his gorgeous, manicured tone. In fact, judging just by those two recordings, I would go out on a limb and say that his tone has actually grown in richness and depth of sound. He used to sound like Emanuel Feuermann; he now sounds like Mstislav Rostropovich.

As in some of her other works, too, Zwilich throws in some clear jazz references—here, at least, in the earlier jazz-classical style of Gershwin, only a bit more modal. She also provides excellent contrasts between the cellist’s lines and the orchestra. For the most part they are on the same page (metaphorically speaking), but there are some wonderful moments in which they play opposing figures that complement one another. Near the end of the first movement, Bailey plays a note that is slightly “warped” in sound (as if he is playing on the edge of the string) which gives the music an unusual feel.

Although the second movement is not exactly continuous from the first, it sounds very much like a further development of it. Once again, the early jazz elements are prominent, in fact perhaps more so than in the first, and it’s wonderful to hear a soloist and orchestra that “get it.” My readers know that I’ve sometimes complained of classical musicians who, playing jazz-classical hybrids, seem to be reticent to play the rhythms with the right loose sound, but there is no problem in this recording. Bailey’s playing almost sounds at times, due to its incredible richness, like Charles Mingus playing the bass, particularly in the pizzicato section of the second movement where he plays against a trumpet solo and comments by the winds. I almost expected him to start improvising. Would that be an option in this concerto, perhaps in the form of a cadenza?

In short, this is a highly entertaining piece if not a terribly deep one, but Zwilich’s sure grasp of the musical elements involved make it work. The third movement opens with light, high strings, almost like the Act I Prelude to Lohengrin, before moving on to a few comments from the soloist. Writing such reflective, slow music for the last movement is surely unusual, but in time the tempo doubles as both lower strings and winds in the orchestra play syncopated figures. Bailey’s playing in this movement is simply outstanding. He brings a rare combination of seriousness and light-hearted insouciance to this music, which makes it work quite well. Eventually, the busy elements of this movement fade away, there is a moment of silence, and whet it resumes it is again moody and reflective.

This performance of the Peanuts Gallery is a good one, thanks primarily to pianist Elizabeth Dorman who gets into the spirit of it very well. Conductor Lecce-Chong and the orchestra also do a great job on “Snoopy Does the Samba.” “Lucy Freaks Out,” however, isn’t as energetic as the performance by Jeffrey Biegel and Alexander Jiménez on Naxos.

The Romance for violin and orchestra is a nice piece, developing from a somewhat over-sweet opening into some very interesting modal variations at a faster tempo. Again, the sound quality of this disc is simply phenomenal. The Prologue for string orchestra is clearly the most serious piece on the orchestra, and it makes a nice finale.

This CD is particularly worth getting for the Cello Concerto, at least. It’s a fun and interesting piece that all of you jazz-classical lovers will surely enjoy.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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