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Prokofiev: Sinfonia Concertante, Cello Sonata / Zuill Bailey

Release Date: 05/13/2016
Label: Steinway & Sons Catalog #: 30057
Composer:  Sergei Prokofiev Performer:  Zuill Bailey ,  Natasha Paremski Conductor:  Grant Llewellyn Orchestra/Ensemble:  North Carolina Symphony

World-renowned cellist Zuill Bailey has been called “One of the finest cellists alive today.” (Classical Net) This is Bailey’s third release on the Steinway label. For this programme, he has chosen two of Sergei Prokofiev’s mature and majestic works. The Sinfonia Concertante is one of the most difficult and exciting works for cello and orchestra. The piece premiered on February 18, 1952, and was dedicated to Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. Pairing with the Sinfonia Concertante is the Cello Sonata. This lyrical work was also composed for Mstislav Rostropovich, and was written after much of Prokofiev’s music had been banned and the composer did not know if the work would ever be performed in public. Zuill Bailey performs here with Read more pianist Natasha Peremski and the North Carolina Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Grant Llewellyn.

Album Credits:

Sinfonia Concertante recorded February 20-21, 2015 at Meymandi Concert Hall, Raleigh, North Carolina.
Cello Sonata recorded December 14, 2015 at Oberlin Conservatory of Music, Clonick Hall Studio; Oberlin, Ohio.
Recording Producer: Thomas C. Moore, Five/Four Productions, Ltd.
Recording, Mix, and Mastering Engineer: Michael Bishop, Five/Four Productions, Ltd.
Assistant Engineer: Ian Dobie, Five/Four Productions, Ltd.
Recording Editor: Thomas C. Moore, Five/Four Productions, Ltd.
Art Direction: Jackie Fugere
Design: Anilda Carasquillo


"Few cellists can successfully conquer the [Sinfonia concertante’s] extremes in tempos, rhythms, dynamics and emotions. Bailey’s mesmerizing, deeply committed performance puts this recording at the top, especially because of his warm, rounded tone and jaw-dropping clarity in lightning-speed runs. Equally impressive are Grant Llewellyn’s subtle, precise conducting and the N.C. Symphony’s alternately lush and spiky support. The recorded sound is vivid, crisp and spacious."
-- Roy C. Dicks, The News & Observer

"Bailey, the classical cello category killer, faces off against the North Carolina Symphony Orchestra in an incredible presentation of music as art that really deserves to be on the next Grammy ballot... A winner throughout."
-- MidWest Record [05/06/16]

Toward the end of his greatly productive life, Prokofiev revisited some of his earlier works with which he wasn't entirely happy. One of these pieces was the Fourth Symphony, Op. 47, written under commission from the Boston Symphony and premiered by that orchestra in 1930. The symphony was based on themes from Prokofiev's ballet The Prodigal Son, composed for Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. Critical reaction to the work was lukewarm at best. The consensus was that Prokofiev's Fourth Symphony was much less successful in recycling music written for the stage than the composer's Symphony No. 3, based on themes from his opera The Fiery Angel.

Prokofiev was so stung by the criticism that he defended his new symphony in the pressand that hurt and embarrassment stayed with him when he went back to Russia in the mid-1930s. In 1947, Prokofiev returned to the symphony, determined to turn it into a work that would finally register with the Russian public. And he was so convinced that he had transmogrified the earlier work into a wholly new, independent creation that he gave the revision a new opus number, Op. 112. Ironically, as it turns out, Prokofiev was both right and wrong about his reworking: critics seem to favor the earlier version, though the revision is far and away the favored version of conductors, as witness the numerous recordings of the later version.

Another work that underwent significant revision was Prokofiev's Cello Concerto premiered in Moscow in 1938. Again, for a variety of reasons, including an unsympathetic reading by the cellist and orchestra, this was largely a bust. However, the work did have an occasional outing thereafter, including a performance by the young Mstislav Rostropovich in 1947, which the composer happened to attend. Prokofiev was so impressed that he vowed to improve on the original, of course with the young cellist in mind. In the meantime, Prokofiev managed to create a masterpiece specifically for Rostropovich, the Cello Sonata Op. 119 of 1949. The reworking of the Cello Concerto took a bit longer, but finally Prokofiev's Sinfonia Concertante (also known as Symphony-Concerto), dedicated to Rostropovich, was premiered in 1952, a little more than a year before the composer's death.

Unlike the reworking of the Symphony No. Four, the composition, or recomposition, of the Sinfonia Concertante came in the wake of the Soviet Politburo's 1948 condemnation of Prokofiev and Shostakovich (and more surprisingly, Khachaturian and Miaskovsky) for their alleged abandonment of the tenets of Social Realism. At this point Prokofiev was a sick man, suffering from the results of a concussion caused by a fall associated with his chronic hypertension. His doctors ordered that he restrict his compositional activities to an hour a day(!), and so Prokofiev dedicated his time to working on the Sinfonia Concertante.

It is certainly a different work from the Cello Concerto premiered in 1938, though scholars are divided about whether it is simply an expanded version of the earlier piece or an entirely new animal, as Prokofiev supposed the reworking of his Fourth Symphony to be. Thanks to the efforts of Steven Isserlis, who has recorded the work

twice to my knowledge, interested listeners can judge for themselves. As for me, I think the reworked piece is different enough, and improved enough, to warrant the new opus numberand then some.

Yet it's still not as easy to live with as Prokofiev's greatest concertos, the two Violin Concertos and the Second and Third Piano Concertos. There's something odd about the Sinfonia's layout or rhetoricor both. For one thing, I suppose the title Sinfonia Concertante (or, even more tellingly, Symphony-Concerto) indicates Prokofiev's desire to expand his concerto into the realm of a concerto for orchestra-cum-cello concerto. And it does seem to have ambitions and scope beyond Prokofiev's other string concerti. The work starts with two longish sonata-form movements, the first a slow movement ( Andante), the second a frenetic, scherzo-like movement with a long, double stop heavy cadenza.

In both movements, it seems obvious that Prokofiev is trying, as he always did in the last tragic years of his life, to satisfy the arcane demands of Socialist Realism while staying true to his essential Modernist roots. The first melodies in movements 1 and 2 are angular, severe, while the second melodies would be at home in the gentler scenes of the great ballets he wrote in the Soviet Union. For me, a Prokofiev devotee of the first order, the materials of the Sinfonia Concertante don't always jell, though they really do in the finale, a variations-form movement that has some of the irreverence of the old Prokofiev, as well as a wildly motoric conclusion that is reminiscent of the final pages of his reworked Symphony No. 4. So you see, I had a couple of reasons for mentioning Prokofiev's Op. 112.

The Sinfonia Concertante hasn't lacked for skilled advocates, including Raphael Walfisch, Mischa Maisky, Pieter Wispelwey, Ha-Na Chang, and of course the dedicatee, Mstislav Rostropovich. I had the good fortune of being able to compare Zuill Bailey's new recording with those of Raphael Walfisch (Chandos) and Rostropovich (Erato) and came to the unoriginal conclusion that there are any number of ways to skin a musical cat. Rostropovich's performance is both classic and of unique historic significance. I find that Zuill Bailey's performance of the work is very much in the Rostropovich traditionlarge-scale, imposing, emphasizing the Modernist elements of the work. Walfisch and Neeme Järvi, on a vintage Chandos recording, give a bit more emphasis to the tender, simplified art that Prokofiev cultivated, or tried to, when he returned to his native land. To that end, Walfisch employs more legato, even injecting some Romantic slides between notes. It seems as valid an approach as the more aggressive ones taken by Rostropovich and Bailey. Also, the highly resonant recording tends to knock some of the hard edges off Prokofiev's writing for cello and orchestra both.

Which brings us back to Zuill Bailey's performance with the North Carolina Symphony Orchestra. The close-in, very present recording seems to emphasize the more muscular Modernist approach that Bailey pursues. The tender bits aren't slighted, mind you, but this performance underscores the tough-minded, angular musical language that was a hallmark of Prokofiev's finest compositions right up to the end. And while the North Carolina Symphony is clearly a very fine band, it almost certainly has a smaller string section than the London Symphony, which backed up Rostropovich on my comparison disc from Erato. But the leanness of texture, plus the close-up recording and crystal clarity afforded the percussion and brass, provide an increased sense of parity between soloist and orchestral musicians. This seems to place Prokofiev's conceit of a sinfonia concertante for cello and orchestra in a whole new light, emphasizing that, like the sinfonias concertante of Mozart and Haydn, Prokofiev's work looks back to the genesis of the form in the Baroque concerto grosso, which posited a rather intimate dialog between soloist(s) and orchestra. The current recording is not merely a valid approach but one that all lovers of Prokofiev should be aware of.

The very appropriate coupling is the Cello Sonata Op. 119, written for Rostropovich as a kind of promissory note, and a wonderful one it is too. Again, the work balances angular melodies and dissonant harmonies with beautifully sustained melodic passages in a way that Prokofiev could have patented, if the Soviet Union would have allowed such individualistic endeavor. Bailey and his very fine accompanist Natasha Paremski emphasize the more Modernist side of Prokofiev, in keeping with the performance of the Sinfonia Concertante. Some listeners may find the approach a bit unrelenting, but it's an exciting interpretation nonetheless. For me, this disc offers new ways of listening to one of my favorite composers, and for that I'm grateful.

-- Audiophile Audition

"The rich, warm and elegant tone of Zuill Bailey’s 1693 Matteo Gofriller cello is the primary attraction of a new Steinway & Sons recording of major Prokofiev forays into cello composing...Bailey and Paremski make no attempt to give the sonata a profundity it does not possess, but they effectively mine it for its many beauties and produce a warm and satisfying rendition."

"...An entirely different voice for the cello is heard on the gorgeous new record of Prokofiev cello music by another middle-aged master of the modern cello, 44-year old Zuill Bailey. He performs Prokofiev's C-minor Sinfonia Concertante with the North Carolina Symphony Orchestra conducted by Grant Llewelyn and the composer's C-Major cello/piano sonata with pianist Natasha Paremski. The excellence of the North Carolina Symphony may take some by surprise but it shouldn't in this era. Both the Prokofiev works on the disc were composed by the composer for the legendary master of the instrument, Mstislav Rostropovich. Anything less than music of enormous distinction produced under those circumstances would have been close to scandal at best, and, at worst, close to illegal in Soviet Russia. It would have been a betrayal by Prokofiev of one of his greatest colleagues and that was not possible. A beautiful record."

--The Buffalo News.

For more than a few music lovers, Rostropovich has owned the Symphony-Concerto, either in his 1987 Erato recording with Ozawa or the earlier 1956 EMI with Malcolm Sargent. Even the newer of the two is nearly 30 years old, and maybe it's time for a successoror at least another one as fine.

Zuill Bailey's playing is that impressive. He digs into the brooding Andante (I) and plumbs emotional depths that no earlier recording except for Rostropovich comes close to. The trickiest part of this concerto, at least for the listener, is that after the 10-minute opening movement, we get a combination scherzo and slow movement that's almost twice as long. I've got to admit that my attention tends to wander in this movement, even when Rostropovich is playing. But Bailey imparts a cogency to itand sensuously elegant playingthat kept me in rapt attention. I wondered if he'd be just as adept with the witty charm of the theme-and-variations. Yes, he is.

Sometimes a performer like Rostropovich becomes so predominant with his instrument that we don't notice how he raises the bar for later generations and how the younger musicians meet or even exceed the standards he set. Then a performer like Bailey comes along and makes a recording like this one, and we realize that our old idols can be surpassed.

What about the orchestra? Is the North Carolina Symphony really a rival for the London Symphony? It is. Perhaps this is partly because Grant Llewellyn is a livelier, more alert conductor than Seiji Ozawa; but I find the accompaniment here at least as compelling as the old Erato recording, and actually more so. The recorded sound is definitely deeper, richer, and more resonant. It flatters the whole orchestra, not just the soloist and the other strings. And there's more!

Shortly after I got this disc to review, I heard Bailey and Natasha Paremski in a recital at the Ravinia Festival. One of the works on the program was the Prokofieff Cello Sonata (along with Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky). Is it bad form to go to a cello recital to hear the pianist? I discovered Ms Paremski purely by accident at the Minnesota Orchestra's Sommerfest when she knocked me and most of the rest of the audienceout of our seats with a stunning performance of the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto 3 of the sort that comes along once or twice in a lifetime. I've heard her more times since and can say that she is truly one of the most prodigiously gifted pianists I've ever heard. Some critics have likened her to Martha Argerich. So I signed on for the Ravinia recital with no clue as to who Zuill Bailey was. Turns out he's a cellist of equal stature, who can perform this Prokofieff sonata with no fear of being overshadowed by his accompanist!

Like the concerto, the sonata begins with a brooding Andante, followed by a shorter, lighter movement, and then a speedy but not driven finale. Both performers handle the different moods of each section with exceptional aplomb; and, even more important, there's a give-and-take between them that makes me pay attention to this piece in a way that I never did before.

Sometimes I worry I'm becoming the Jaded Critic, for whom no new artist or recording can measure up to the standards of my long-standing favorites. Then artists like Bailey and Paremski come along, and as I anticipate their next performance, I feel like I'm discovering the music all over again. If I ever find myself packing for a one-way trip to the proverbial desert island, I'll be sure I include this disc.

-- American Record Guide

Sometimes the third time really is the charm. Prokofiev wrote his Cello Concerto between 1933 and 1938. It was poorly received and seldom played, but he heard Mstislav Rostropovich perform it in 1947 and was prompted to revise and expand it. Rostropovich perform it in 1947 and was prompted to revise and expand it. Rostropovich performed this Second Cello Concerto in 1952; Prokofiev took it back to the drawing board once more and returned with the Sinfonia Concertante (also called the Symphony Concerto). It is astoundingly athletic and a vast 40 minutes long. With fertile, almost cerebral themes developed into an intellectual workout, the music isn't quite whistling material, yet there's beauty in the slower parts of the middle movement and humor in the third. The sonata is one of Prokofiev's best pieces. Etude-spoofing main themes contrast strongly with lyrical second themes, and there are moments of repose everywhere you turn. It all ends with a wholesome, grand C Major chord. Zuill Bailey is engaging an alert, Paremski is a stunning pianist, and the orchestra is plenty strong. The Sinfonia Concertante is from a concert; the sound is a little close but still full.

-- The Absolute Sound
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