CD: ZUILL BAILEY, Cellist – Brahms Works for Cello and Piano

Following the success of last year’s recording of J.S. Bach’s Suites for Solo Cello, cellist Zuill Bailey has teamed with long-term friend pianist Awadagin Pratt to produce a consumately beautiful collection of works by Johannes Brahms. The ten selections included in Brahms Works For Cello and Piano and their order over 15 tracks are packed with drama, raging passion, exquisite pathos, and the most tender and deepest of longings. Beginning with the first track, Lerchegesang – a delicate kind-of Overture to the work that follows – it’s very clear that there is – dare I say it? – an American Sensibility hovering in the poetic atmosphere of this entire recording. Followed by the opening movement of the Sonata in E Minor (the 15-minute “Allegro non troppo”), we are swept into an irresistible musical narrative that is sweetened at every turn by the duo’s astonishing musicianship and the intensity of their dramatic agreement.

Zuill and Awadagin captured Lerchengesang – the “Lark Song” – at the end of a very long session when the cellist thought they were spent. But Bailey says Pratt insisted. “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.”

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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 CelloSonata in F Major (1886), the album includes the composer’s “Sonatensatz” which has been transcribed for the cello from the violin original. Seven more transcriptions for cello and piano have been made of Brahms’ songs, including the universally known lullaby, Wiegenlied, Op. 49, No. 4. 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. Also featured are Sapphische Ode (Sapphic Ode), Feldeinsamkeit (Solitude in the Fields), and Minnelied.

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 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 Piano & Cello by Beethoven (with pianist Simone Dinnerstein) and Russian Masterpieces for Cello and Orchestra 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.

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