Zuill Bailey. Remember the name.
Twice in the last year I've experienced a transcendental performance of Bach by artist nailing their work to the door, as Martin Luther is reputed to have done with his 95 Theses, and the musical world is listening.
First I had the extraordinary good fortune to hear Simone Dinnerstein play the Goldberg Variations at the sensational new Koerner Hall at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. 90 minutes of musical bliss, encompassing the entire world through her deep study and full-blooded fingerwork. Dinnerstein has launched a major career on the back of her interpretations (different at each performance) of this greatest of all sets of variations.
I had not expected lightning to strike twice, but Zuill Bailey's intensive and prolonged study of the Cello Suites has culminated in this performance, recorded at the American Academy of Arts and Letters in New York back in December 2008, marks an equally impressive achievement. There have been many impressive performances of the Cello Suites over the years, starting of course with the great Pablo Casals. The versions that have satisfied me the most have been Pierre Fournier, Paul Tortelier and Anner Bylsma, who brought the Suites back to their roots in dance. Many tip their hats to Janos Starker and Pieter Wispelwey. For sheer beauty of sound, Yo Yo Ma may claim top spot, but I find little else to enjoy in his performance.
Zuill Bailey takes extraordinary risks in this performance and is never afraid of the consequences. He reminds me of Schnabel in the Beethoven Sonatas. He plays the Suites with all the passion, speed and articulation that he sees in his mind's eye. For Schnabel this works 99% of the time, but sometimes his fingers just cannot keep up with his imagination. Nevertheless this is a wonderful way to do it, because he gets the music right even when he gets the notes wrong. Here in the Cello Suites, Bailey's fingers somehow manage to keep up without any obvious lapses, although from time to time you feel things are likely to come off the rails soon.
The key word for these performances is passion. This quality, combined with strength of purpose and a granite-like integrity, fits perfectly into my own personal view of Bach. This is not just a romantic interpretation like Rostropovich, nor a classical dance-based reading like Bylsma, nor a poetic and steely version like Fournier, but a version that wraps the best of all those elements together.
The Second Suite in E-Flat Major, BWV 1008 is an exemplar of the earlier, more straightforward writing in this set, and Bailey's strong, powerful string tone (produced on the 1693 Ex "Mischa Schneider" Matteo Gofriller cello) lays out the strong lines and dance rhythms brilliantly and with great clarity and dignity throughout. The full extent of Bailey's achievement is revealed only in the later more complex suites, culminating in the Sixth Suite in D Major, BWV 1012. The perfection of the overall phrasing and all the micro details and inflections within it reveal staggeringly clear lines while sudden stops and brutally powerful open string resonances point up and color the notes on the page in a vibrant and all-involving dance.
I'm a great lover of extreme virtuosity when I find it in service of the music and not just an end in itself. Well, to be honest, even then! But here we have virtuosity enabling an electrifying performance that would not otherwise be possible. This is as far from Ma as it is possible to be, and closest of all to Fournier in conception, although by no means defined by that influence.
This is most certainly a young man's Bach. Bailey has already declared his intention to record the Bach Suites twice more at different stages of his career, and I will be most interested to see what changes the years bring. So yes, American cellist Zuill Bailey takes his place proudly alongside Simone Dinnerstein as an outstanding young talent in the sublime music of Bach. You can also hear them together in their new recording of the complete Beethoven Cello Sonatas, also available on the Telarc label.
Telarc have provided wonderful sound here with an enormous dynamic range and color. For that we must thank Producer and Engineer Adam Abeshouse, Executive Producer Robert Woods and Mastering Engineer Bruce Leek. Their work allows us to fully appreciate this magnificent performance.