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Edward ELGAR (1857-1934) Cello Concerto in E minor, op. 85 (1919) [27:35]
Bedrich SMETANA (1824-1884) Selections from Ma Vlast (1874-1879): Vyšehrad (The high castle) [14:44]; Vltava (The Moldau) [12:05]; ţárka [9:47]
Zuill Bailey (cello)
Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra/Krzysztof Urbanski
rec. 30-31 March 2012, Hilbert Circle Theatre, Indianapolis. DDD
TELARC TEL-34030-02 [64:20]

Zuill Bailey launches into the opening phrase of the Elgar concerto in emphatic style. After this the emotional temperature of the movement seems to drop a little, with the first subject in the Moderato having quite a self-contained feel. I once read a comment about this tune to the effect that it should sound like someone walking easily into an unfamiliar landscape. Bailey captures this feeling to perfection, playing with beautiful tone and seamless legato phrasing. Urbanski produces a similarly refined contribution from the orchestra, with the tuttis being particularly smoothly launched; I could have done with a bit more grip from the brass. The transition from the Lento to the Allegro molto is ably done, with good rapport between the conductor and soloist. Bailey always sounds totally in control - never making an ugly sound. The Adagio begins in a mood of tender reverence. This movement is both mourning and celebratory, and Bailey and Urbanski handle its delicate mood most sensitively. The war-machine music brings some deliberately forced tone from Bailey, and he plays the extended arpeggio passage with terrific power. The orchestral interjections are vital yet refined, avoiding the brassy glare that sometimes arises from Elgar’s scores. Bailey achieves great inwardness in the slow lamenting passage, surely one of the most moving ever written for the cello. The return of the opening theme has real anger, plunging into the headlong coda with thrilling effect.
 
This is a really interesting and quite nuanced performance of one of the masterpieces of the cello repertoire. The opening movement may at first seem a bit cool, but Bailey and Urbanski capture the very British reserve that is an important facet of Elgar’s style. Starting off in a low-key fashion also allows them to ratchet up the intensity as they proceed, and they really go for it in the finale. I certainly got much more out of this performance than I did from Peter Wispelwey’s, which to me did not communicate on an emotional level at all. Those who find du Pré a bit overwrought, on the other hand, will probably find in Bailey an ideal middle ground. His technique is clearly formidable, and his rich yet penetrating tone is well captured by the Telarc engineers. Cello aficionados will be interested to hear that his instrument is a Matteo Gofriller from 1693. He is a little forward in the balance, but not excessively so, and Urbanski is a sensitive accompanist who also gives the orchestra its head in the tuttis. The performance was given live, at an unspecified date, presumably in the Hilbert Circle Theatre, Indianapolis. Whatever the venue, the acoustic has a pleasant woodiness, with rather boomy timpani sound. The audience is entirely silent throughout, only revealing its presence through the rather tepid applause at the end. The citizens of Indianapolis must be well served for live music!
 
The four excerpts from Smetana’s Ma Vlast are also very well played. The harp is nicely resonant in Vyšehrad, and Vltava is a little more expansive than Talich’s classic recording with the Czech Philharmonic. These performances, also live, pointed up some surprising echoes of Wagner in Smetana’s orchestral writing, both in terms of scoring, and in the development of the musical argument. The orchestra plays responsively throughout, with a sophistication and polish that feel quite European. I was not quite sure what to make of this coupling. Those wanting Ma Vlast will go for one of the numerous complete recordings, but it certainly is an impressive showcase for the Indianapolis orchestra.
 
A performance of the Elgar cello concerto that is thoughtful and rich in feeling.

Guy Aron

See also review by John Quinn