New Classical Tracks: The cello, impassioned and personal

Zuill Bailey
Cellist Zuill Bailey.
Album cover

Zuill Bailey comes from a long line of musicians. His father has a doctorate in music and education. His mother is a pianist who studied with Leon Fleisher at the Peabody Conservatory, the same place where Zuill Bailey earned his undergraduate degree.

From the Peabody Conservatory, Bailey headed to New York City to study with Joel Krosnick of the Juillard String Quartet. With Krosnick, Bailey spent hours talking and analyzing what makes music work.

What makes Bailey's new recording of Russian Masterpieces for Cello and Orchestra really work is his impassioned performance.

This recording opens with Tchaikovsky's Variations on a Rococo Theme for Cello and Orchestra. These variations were written for Wilhelm Fitzenhagen, Tchaikovsky's colleague at the Moscow Conservatory.

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Fitzenhagen added plenty of his own ideas into the solo section. He also dropped one entire variation, and rearranged the order of the others. Tchaikovsky did allow these changes to be published. Fitzenhagen's version is the one Zuill Bailey performs on this recording.

While some performers approach these variations more tenderly and subdued, Bailey is more bold and assertive. In the second variation he digs into the rich melodic line, flamboyantly improvising through the cadenza. He clearly loves this gorgeous Rococo melody.

The third variation enters the fairy tale world of ballet, which the composer had recently explored on a grand scale in his ballet, "Swan Lake."

The San Francisco Ballet Orchestra dances its way through the waltz-like charm of this variation, as the cello sings its way through the highest and lowest registers.

One of the most charming features of these seven variations is the ritorenello which links each movement. The ritornello is the repeated passage played by the orchestra which introduces each movement. This is where the woodwinds of the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra really shine.

Shostakovich's Cello Concerto No. 1 was written for Mstislav Rostropovich in 1959. Bailey may have picked up a few tips for this work after having studied under Rostropovich as a young teen.

The first movement is rather manic, shifting from moods of anger to sarcasm. Shostkovich highlights the woodwinds in the orchestral accompaniment, and with the exception of one solo horn, he dispenses with the brass section entirely.

Some say the final movement depicts the Russian people's "victory in the struggle to happiness." Shostakovich had something else in mind when he added a five-note phrase in the string section at the start of the finale, which came from Stalin's favorte song, "Suliko."

Shostakovich distorts that sweet little tune into unrecognizable maddening fragments. Zuill Bailey and conductor Martin West pay close attention to the subtle dynamics and the agitated rhythms, which make this work so challenging.

Each time I listen to these Russian Masterpieces with Zuill Bailey and the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra, I hear something that excites me. This young master cellist is blazing his own trail as he seeks to make a personal statement in each of these works.

If you're interested in hearing where this generation is taking classical music, you'll want to add Zuill Bailey's new release to your personal music library.