Cellist Zuill Bailey - whose 2010 recording of J.S. Bach's Suites for Solo Cello went straight to the top of the Billboard classical chart - will see his latest Telarc release focus on Brahms. It's the first time the cellist has paired on record with pianist and longtime friend Awadagin Pratt. The two have been performing live together since 1998, although they first met over a ping-pong table as students a dozen years before that.
Bailey says, "Of all the records I've made, this is the one I'm most proud of. It was a great experience working in the studio with one of my oldest friends, and I feel like Awadagin and I really caught the comet's tail on this one - it was intense, that's for sure. We worked incredibly hard, and we recorded about 80 minutes of music, trying to encompass everything Brahms does, from the boldly passionate to the beautifully lyrical."
Along with Johannes Brahms' Cello Sonata in E Minor (1865) and the Cello Sonata in F Major (1886), the album includes the composer's "Sonatensatz" (transcribed for the cello from the violin original) as well as transcriptions for cello and piano of seven of his songs (including the world-famous "Wiegenlied," or "Brahms' Lullaby"). The disc, produced by Grammy Award-winners Elaine Martone and Robert Woods, was the first recording made in the Oberlin Conservatory of Music's new state-of-the-art studio facility.
"The music of Brahms feels perfect for the cello," Bailey says. "It's so from the earth that there is something almost molten about it. And the engineers were able to deliver a bloom to the sound for this record that was ideal - it just glows, with the piano like a magic carpet. The Oberlin studio is the quietest I've ever been in, with zero extraneous noises; it was wonderfully freeing for us."
In the early E Minor Sonata, the cello takes on the voice of a "luxurious baritone," Bailey says, while in the later F Major Sonata, it's "more like a soaring tenor. I thought a lot about singing with this record - about the diction and breathing of singers, and how I could emulate that breathing with my phrasing, particularly on the songs without words, which have been a passion for me lately."
The album's rarely heard instrumental transcriptions of Brahms' songs range from "Liebestreu" (True Love), the very first of 200-plus lieder the composer published during his career, to the ever-familiar "Wiegenlied" of 1868. The disc also features "Melodien," "Sapphische Ode" (Sapphic Ode), "Feldeinsamkeit" (Solitude in the Fields), "Minnelied" (Love Song) and "Lerchengesang" (Lark Song).
The duo captured the "Lark Song" at the end of a very long session when the cellist thought they were spent, but Pratt "insisted," Bailey says, "and he was right. We didn't over-analyze it; we played it straight from the vocal score and let go, just taking a few passes. There seemed to be something special about it, this simplicity and innocence, so we decided to open the album with it. Then comes the instrumental drama of the E Minor Sonata, which has been a centerpiece of the recital repertoire Awadagin and I have played over the past decade or so."
Alongside the two Cello Sonatas and the songs without words is "Sonatensatz," or the so-called "F-A-E Scherzo," which comes from a collaborative violin sonata composed by Brahms, Robert Schumann and fellow composer Albert Dietrich in 1853 for violinist Joseph Joachim, who became a lifelong friend and collaborator of Brahms. The "F-A-E" of the nickname stems from Joachim's bachelor motto: "Frei, Aber Einsam" (Free, but Alone). Of playing the piece in a version for cello, Bailey says: "If I may say so, I think the `Sonatensatz' sounds just as good on the cello, if not better. The cello gives the music a new gravitas."
The Brahms album is the latest in a series of lauded Telarc releases from Bailey. Of last year's solo Bach album, Philadelphia Inquirer critic David Patrick Stearns wrote: "From the first notes, this set commands attention. . . and might be headed for classic status thanks to the combination of vision, temperament and technique that comes together to great effect."
The Bach album spent four weeks in a row at No. 1 on the Billboard classical chart, along with hitting No. 25 on the New Artists chart. Bailey has proved to have a knack for making such rarified music as solo Bach feel accessible and hip to broader audiences, having toured the suites in intimate clubs across the U.S. Prior to the solo Bach, Telarc released Bailey's recording of the complete works for cello and piano by Beethoven (with pianist Simone Dinnerstein) and "Russian Masterpieces," which features Shostakovich's Cello Concerto No. 1 and pieces by Tchaikovsky (with Martin West and the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra).
Coming to Brahms after recording Bach and Beethoven was an ear-opening experience, Bailey says: "I was able to hear Bach and Beethoven in Brahms to a degree that I hadn't before. Now, I hear the fugues of Bach in Brahms' music, and I hear what people in the 19th century meant when they said that Brahms picked up where Beethoven left off. Certainly, recording the last of `the three B's' capped something important for me. I'm a massive record-collector, and I've always treasured the way a recording documents a chapter in an artist's life. This album definitely captures a key juncture in mine."
Zuill Bailey performs on a 1693 Matteo Gofriller Cello, formerly owned by Mischa Schneider of the Budapest String Quartet. In addition to his extensive touring engagements, Bailey is artistic director of El Paso Pro Musica and professor of cello at the University of Texas at El Paso, as well as artistic director of the Sitka Summer Music Festival and Series, Sitka, Alaska. Renowned for bringing classical music to the broader culture, the cellist's many TV appearances have included a recurring role on the popular HBO series Oz, playing a musician who murdered a rival and found himself playing Bach behind bars. Born in Alexandria, Virginia, Bailey was graduated from Peabody Conservatory and the Juilliard School.
Awadagin Pratt, born in Pittsburgh, was the first student in the history of the Peabody Conservatory to be awarded diplomas in three performance areas: piano, violin and conducting. He won the Naumburg International Piano Competition in 1992, leading to a recording contract with Angel/EMI. He has performed at the White House for both Presidents Obama and Clinton. Pratt is currently associate professor of piano and artist-in-residence at the University of Cincinnati's Conservatory of Music.