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Chamber Music, Recital Media Review Print

Zuill Bailey and Awadagin Pratt Play Brahms' Music for Cello

May 17, 2011 - Williamsburg, MA:

Johannes Brahms: Sonatas for Cello, No. 1 in E minor, Op. 38, & No. 2 in F, Op. 99, transcription for cello of the Sonatensatz, a.k.a. “F-A-E Scherzo,” for violin, transcriptions for cello of 7 songs: “Feldeinsamkeit,” Op. 86/2, “Lerchengesang,” Op70/2, “Liebestreu,” Op. 3/1, “Minnelied,” Op. 71/5, “Sapphische Ode,” Op. 94/4, “Wie Melodien,” Op. 105/1, “Wiegenlied,” Op. 49/15; Zuill Bailey, cello, Awadagin Pratt, piano; Telarc TEL 32664-02, © 2011, TT 76:51, $18.98.

These two musicians have been playing together for over a decade and known each other for another decade before that, but this is their first recording together, and a nice one it is. Bailey comes to Brahms after having recorded the Bach Cello Suites and the Cello Sonatas and Variations of Beethoven, with Simone Dinnerstein as his partner, thus completing all of the works for his instrument of all three B’s.

This performance order is well conceived. The CD opens and closes with song transcriptions, “Lerchengesang” and “Wiegenlied” respectively. These are respectively followed and preceded by the two sonatas in chronological order, which are separated by the remaining song transcriptions, the last two of those separated by the Sonatensatz transcription. Since all the song transcriptions are of quieter, slower tempi works, this creates a sequence that gives regular breaks from the more intense moments in the sonata works. Indeed, the first sonata, whose first Allegro non troppo movement is, at over 15 minutes, longer than the remaining two (Allegretto quasi menuetto and Allegro) combined, has no slow movement [Anner Bylsma, playing the Smithsonian’s 1701 “Servais” Stradivarius cello, and Lambert Orkis, on the Smithsonian’s 1892 “Paderewski” Steinway piano, play it in ca. 12.5 minutes, still more than double their timings of the other two movements, in my other recording of these works.]. Neither does the Sonatensatz have any real slow sections. The sole slow movement of the three works is the second sonata’s second 7-minute Adagio affettuoso, this in a total of nearly 60 minutes of music, an intensity that clearly calls for some relief, especially since the overall atmosphere is also somewhat heavy. The songs are calm and warm, the cello generally a successful replacement for the voice.

Brahms originally composed the first three movements of the first sonata in 1862 with an Adagio as its second movement, but set it aside, returning to it in 1865 to write the finale. Clara Schumann advised him that it was too long, so his solution was to remove the Adagio. The second sonata was composed over two decades later in 1886, after Brahms heard a public performance of the first and decided to return to the instrumental pair, in the standard 4-movement form. The Sonatensatz was written in 1853 for the violinist Joseph Joachim; F.A.E., Frei Aber Einsam (free, but alone), was his motto, and offered the key signatures for the sections of the work. Joachim kept the manuscript and it was not published until 1906.

The performance is a very Romantic one. Some of the playing in some of the fastest moments of the sonatas is incisive, aggressive even. Overall, it is not unpleasant, even if a few spots seem a bit over the top, but it isn’t particularly authentic. Brahms was not known for his Lisztian performance style…  Although their playing times are generally shorter, Bylsma and Orkis are less exuberant and there is less vibrato in the cello. Balance between the instruments is always considered a problem with the first sonata, because the piano can so easily cover the cello in the lower register where much of the music lies, but Bailey and Pratt handle this expertly. It was dedicated to Josef Gänsbacher, an amateur cellist, with whom Brahms performed the first private run-through, and reportedly generally drowned him out; it was not performed in public until 1871. Brahms played the first public performance of the second sonata, which has no dedicatee, with cellist Robert Hausman, Joachim’s partner in the 1887 première of Brahms’ Double Concerto, Op. 102.

The sepia-toned booklet features several different photos of the musicians on its covers, with the track listings and timings on the left side of the back one, and a 2-page spread inside the latter. Benjamin Folkman’s notes in the booklet discuss Brahms’ use of the cello in his chamber music as well as the two sonatas and the other individual works in seven pages, which are followed by two-page bios for each of the musicians and one page of credits that provide complete details about the 1693 Gofriller cello with metal strings, but say not a word about the piano. The CD has a detail of a photo of Brahms on its face, also on the inside of the tray card, whose outside features yet another different photo of the musicians superimposed on a close-up of Brahms’ face in its upper left corner with the track listings and timings on its right side. The recording is the first one made in the Oberlin Conservatory of Music’s new state-of-the-art studio facility. The sound quality is excellent, better than that of the 1995 Bylsma/Orkis recording.