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Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85 (1918-19) [27:35]
Bedřich SMETANA (1824-1884)
Selections from Má Vlast (Vyšehrad (1874) [14:44]; Vltava (1874) [12:05]; šárka (1875) [9:47]) [36:45]
Zuill Bailey (cello)
Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra/Krzysztof Urbański
rec. live, 30-31 March 2012, Hilbert Circle Theater, Indianapolis.
TELARC TEL34030-02 [64:22]
I seem to have been on something of a roll recently with discs arriving for review featuring American orchestras playing British music. Hot on the heels of fine new recordings from The Oregon Symphony and The Kansas City Symphony comes this offering from Indianapolis. The orchestra is playing under the thirty-year old Polish conductor, Krzysztof Urbański, who became their music director with effect from the 2011/12 season. Urbański has also been at the helm of the Trondheim Symphony Orchestra in Norway since the 2010/11 season. For the Elgar concerto they’re joined by the young American cellist, Zuill Bailey.
According to his biography Mr Bailey “is widely considered one of the premiere cellists in the world.” I have to confess that this is the first time I’ve come across him but that may be because much, though by no means all, of his career to date has been centred on his native USA. To judge by this recording he is a fine player. His account of the Elgar concerto is distinguished by the burnished tone he draws from the 1693 Matteo Gofriller instrument on which he plays. His playing in the first movement is commanding and impassioned and he receives excellent support from Urbański and the orchestra. His account of the mercurial scherzo is quicksilver and exciting. In the celebrated Adagio Bailey plays with great feeling yet he keeps the emotion sensibly in check. The heart is not worn on the sleeve in the way that one finds in the classic Du Pré/Barbirolli reading (review), though Bailey and Urbański are by no means cool. It seems to me that Bailey catches the melancholy well and he plays with gorgeous tone, as one would expect at this level. The finale goes very well indeed. The meditative core of the movement (from 6:17) is eloquent while the withdrawn reminiscence of the Adagio (9:15-10:00) finds Bailey veiling his tone and fining it down with great subtlety. This is a good performance of the Elgar concerto and I enjoyed it. Of course, Zuill Bailey faces formidable competition for all the great cellists have set down this work at least once. However, I think anyone investing in this account will find much in it to enjoy.
I find the coupling slightly bemusing. I presume Smetana’s three symphonic poems formed the second half of the concert - perhaps something else was played before the concerto. It may have worked well as a concert programme but I’m less sure about the rationale for having these three pieces cheek by jowl with the Elgar - and it’s clear from the cover of the disc, on which poor Smetana doesn’t even get a look-in, that the marketing thrust lies with the concerto. It seems to me that the disc programme falls between two stools; anyone wanting the Smetana will surely prefer a complete Má Vlast rather than just the first three in the cycle while collectors whose main focus is the Elgar concerto might prefer to have it coupled either with more English music or with another cello work.

However, those tempted by the coupling can rest assured that the Smetana pieces are well done. The performance of Vyšehrad is often dynamic and thrusting; it’s a colourful account. Vltava is the most celebrated of the entire cycle and rightly so in my view since it contains the best music. Urbański does it well, playing this open-hearted music with fine lyrical sweep. It’s sad to reflect that the deafness that blighted Smetana’s last years took hold at the time that he wrote this piece: the useful programme notes point out that at the end of the score of Vltava Smetana wrote “Composed in complete deafness.” The selection ends with šárka and this, too, is well done; the performance is vivid and dramatic.
I was impressed by the playing of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra throughout this disc. Whether as accompanists or taking centre stage in the Smetana, their playing is keen and responsive. The Telarc recording is a very good one; the sound is present and well balanced and the engineers show the orchestra off to good advantage. In the last analysis I don’t think the performance of the Elgar Cello Concerto, good though it is, displaces the market leaders while the Smetana, though the individual performances have much to commend them, is only half the story - literally - of Smetana’s cycle. However, this disc indicates that good things are happening in Indianapolis and I hope we’ll soon hear more of this orchestra and their evidently gifted young conductor on disc. If the coupling appeals then this disc should give pleasure. Though the performances are live I couldn’t detect any extraneous noises though there is some applause, vociferous in the case of the Smetana, after both works.
John Quinn

Masterwork Index: Elgar cello concerto