Though several of the works Dvorak wrote during his four year stay in the New World reflect his interest in the folkloric music he heard there (most famously, the "New World" Symphony and the "American" Quartet), the cello concerto harkens back to his native Czechoslovakia with a sense of longing and nostalgia that's unusually personal. By 1895 the composer had wearied of life in hyperkinetic New York City where he was finishing up his third year as Director of the National Conservatory of Music, and had begun to suffer from an intense homesickness for the rural landscapes he had left behind. But he was also coping with a family tragedy, the illness (and later the death) of his beloved sister-in-law Josefina. Trapped in New York and unable to cope with feelings of helplessness and loss, Dvorak made his new cello concerto her memorial. The second movement includes a quote from his Op. 82, No. 2 (the song "Let me alone") because it was one of Josefina's favorites. The Rondo ends not with the display of brilliance or virtuosity one would normally expect, but with an ecstatic love duet for cello and violin that is a fitting coda to their relationship. Feint pizzicato heartbeats precede the final climax.
Since its premiere, the B minor Concerto has become the mountain every cellist is expected to climb. From early recordings by Casals and Feuermann, the work has never wanted for memorable performances. There's the ease and grace of Fournier/Kubelik (in a still excellent sounding London mono recording), the tightly wrought classicism of Fournier/Szell (in stereo with exciting support from the Berlin Philharmonic), the intense lyricism of Rostropovitch/Giulini, and the highly combustible, idiosyncratic readings by Piatigorsky/Munch and Maisky/Bernstein. My own personal favorites remain the mono Rostropovitch/Talich (the most thrilling and incisive of his six recordings of the work, supported by one of the great Czech conductors and the Czech Philharmonic playing like a house on fire), and the brilliantly recorded and performed Starker/Dorati (the most thoroughly Czech-infused performance I know). Though it's hardly my favorite version of the work, the lush, upholstered version by Rostropovitch and Karajan has been a standard recommendation since its release in the mid-70's.
But for me at least, this new recording by Zuill Bailey offers something very special. It goes without saying that Bailey brings to this performance the rich, burnished tone, technical virtuosity, and wide dynamic range for which he has become justly celebrated. The sheer brilliance and command of his playing ranks with any of the cellists listed above. But it is his interpretation that sets this performance apart. A critic once called the B minor concerto "optimistic music... with a happy ending." And indeed, that's how it's usually performed. But more than any other cellist I've heard, Bailey probes the inner life of this work — the anguish, rage, and sense of loss the composer must have been feeling while he was working his way through its creation. Bailey's first movement is unusually restless, volatile. Episodes of extreme tenderness alternate with sudden eruptions of intense emotion. Bailey does not shy away from risk, and at times he takes us right to the edge. In contrast the Adagio is yielding, intimate, and yet haunted by a seemingly inescapable melancholy. Of the finale Dvorak wrote, "it closes gradually diminuendo — like a sigh — with reminiscences of the first and second movements; the soloist dies away to a pianissimo, then there is a crescendo and the last measures are taken up by the orchestra, ending stormily." This is exactly what Bailey gives us: there is no sense of triumph, no happy ending. And as for that closing, heartbreaking duet for cello and violin, Bailey and concertmaster Zachery De Pue make it into a moment of pure incandescence.
Some may wonder why Telarc chose a second-tier
orchestra like the Indianapolis Symphony to partner Bailey in such an important
endeavor. Well, I wondered too. But after living with this recording for a
while, I have to admit that I came to see the orchestra's contribution as a
plus. It is not unusual for musicians to be inspired by a visiting soloist, and
that's clearly what happens in this live performance. Bailey strikes the
match, and the musicians catch fire. Though the strings don't have quite the
richness and luster of their brethren in New York or Chicago, their playing is
alert and sensitive; and in the more lyric passages, often very beautiful.
Woodwind solos are crisp and pungent; and the brass plays with unanimity and
force. Conductor Markl matches Bailey's intensity and concentration at every
step, and his contribution is no less affecting or intense. The sound is
unusually well balanced and realistic; for once the cello doesn't seem to be
in one room, the orchestra in another. Micheal Bishop's team of engineers have
superbly captured the transparency and wide dynamic range of Hilbert Circle
Theatre, and the audience maintains a ghostly silence until the final note —
and then, given the excellence of the performance they've just heard, who can
blame them for the rousing outburst that follows?
The tone poem The
Water Goblin and the overture In
Nature's Realm provide generous fillers, but frankly do not quite
achieve the same level of inspiration as the concerto. These are, however, very
good performances, very well-played by the orchestra, but perhaps missing
something of the fire one hears in better known versions by Vaclav Talich and
Rafael Kubelik. Nevertheless, those who don't know these less than familiar
scores will enjoy what they hear, and maybe then be moved to seek out even
stronger performances. In any case, the reason to purchase this disc is
Bailey's unforgettable take on the concerto, and that alone is enough to make
this recording highly recommended.