Zuill Bailey / Grant Llewellyn

Benjamin Britten: Cello Symphony; Cello Sonata

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Midwestern American Telarc label seems to have survived its absorption into Concord Music Group and the subsequent gutting of its top-flight engineering staff with its spirit intact, although audiophiles should note that this live recording is not a Super Audio release. It's nicely recorded, though, with a sense of the unidentified space, perhaps the acoustically strong Meymandi Concert Hall in Raleigh where the North Carolina Symphony Orchestra resides. The use of a somewhat unheralded regional orchestra is another part of the Telarc formula, and the NCSO certainly punches above its hitherto perceived weight. The spotlight, however, belongs on Texas-based cellist Zuill Bailey. Here he takes on a pair of works by Benjamin Britten, both originally composed for Mstislav Rostropovich, and he does a fair impression of the great crowd-pleasing Russian. These pieces, on the moody side, aren't among Britten's most popular pieces; the Anglicisms that draw ordinary listeners to his music are there, but they tend to be combined with other things, as in the final Passacaglia of the Symphony for cello & orchestra, Op. 68, in which a sea-type tune becomes enmeshed in dense Sibelian counterpoint. The tricky balances in the paradoxically named Symphony are well handled here; the cello often seems to be muttering dark commentary behind the scenes. The commission for the Cello Sonata in C major, Op. 65, was mediated by Shostakovich, and there's more than a bit of his influence in the music. Both pieces have intensely tragic sections, and Bailey seems in tune with these. Recommended for anyone wishing to expand a Britten collection beyond the standards.

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