The success of a concert is predicated to some extent on how well it fulfills the audience’s expectations. In this light, it was perhaps a mistake to advertise cellist Zuill Bailey’s performance at St. John’s College (to an overflowing audience) as a recital comprising Johann Sebastian Bach’s Unaccompanied Cello Suites Nos. 2, 3, and 4— and not principally because, at the eleventh hour, he changed the program to Suites Nos. 1, 2, and 3. The first and third suites he did deliver as self-contained pieces in interpretations that were stimulating, if sometimes unconventional. Much of the evening, however, was given over to banter— about Bach, about the cello, about Bailey— and the second suite was dealt out piecemeal, reduced to movement-by-movement punctuation within the performer’s voluble commentary.
The newly popular, audience-friendly formula of “talk-and-play” can be an effective outreach tool, and it is precisely what one anticipated of the session Mr. Bailey had announced for the following morning (also at St. John’s) under the rubric “My Life and Bach: A Musical Informance.” It seemed as if the two events might balance each other nicely: one formal, the other casual. In fact, they scarcely contrasted at all, except that on Dec. 5, Bailey actively invited attendees to pose questions and, for the music, focused on Suites Nos. 4 and 6, again with constituent movements retailed as islands separated by rivers of first-person pronouns.
Bach’s six Unaccompanied Cello Suites occupy a summit of intellectual terrain in which the composer’s exorbitant mastery of counterpoint is distilled into something just barely within the reach of an instrument that seems hardly born to the purpose. Devoted music lovers tend to listen to them in a near-meditative state, and most cellists approach their technical and expressive challenges with awe-struck humility. If modesty was scarce in these performances, there was no doubting Bailey’s sincere appreciation of these suites, which he has recorded for release in February 2010 (and his record producer, we were informed, was totally blown away).
He plays with a large, sumptuous tone, the product of an instrument built by Matteo Goffriller of Venice in 1693, shortly before cellos were slenderized by the eminent Antonio Stradivari. Bass lines accordingly emerged with unaccustomed power, while upper parts receded in prominence and tonal clarity, yielding a distinct cast to these performances. Bailey is a gifted cellist in the Romantic tradition. He draws from a broad, rich-hued palette of tone and articulation, and he proceeds unencumbered by the stylistic insights offered by the revelations of the past half-century of historically informed performance. The preludes in each suite displayed rhythmic freedom without abandoning structural logic. The allemandes were hearty, and visceral energy inhabited the minuets, gavottes, bourrées (except the one that died in the third suite), and gigues. Sarabandes were slowed down to a point where rhythmic beats became indistinct, and courantes erupted at breakneck speed. The courante of the second suite and the gigue of the fourth were pushed to spitfire velocities at which the individual pitches scarcely spoke.
We must take Bailey’s autobiographical commentaries at face value— even the parts that differed when the same stories were told on successive days. So far as concerns the accuracy of his historical comments about Bach, I must strongly advise attendees to do their own fact checking before passing on his often-imaginative insights.