Anyone who professes to be a cellist has to come to terms with the five sonatas and three variation sets Beethoven wrote for cello and piano. These eight works -- or at least the five sonatas -- have been recorded as complete sets so often, and by such big names -- Casals, Fournier, Rostropovich, du Pré, Maisky, Ma, and on down the line -- that you might wonder what the advantage would be in recording them again. No doubt some classical music know-it-all would promptly respond that there is no point in such an exercise. Moreover, cellist Zuill Bailey seems like the kind of player who would serve as a virtual magnet of criticism for those within the classical establishment most interested in preserving the status quo; he'll make you wonder if he's secretly wearing Birkenstocks behind his 1683 Gofriller cello. For those who take the time to close their eyes and open their ears to Bailey, however, they would find him a deeply committed, serious player with a big tone, generous resonance, interpretive sensitivity, and a natural manner of playing that's as easy as breathing. At least they will on Telarc's Beethoven: Complete Works for Piano and Cello, where Bailey is paired with young, white-hot virtuoso Simone Dinnerstein. Dinnerstein is an excellent choice as accompanist given her fundamental understanding of classical tempi, keen touch, and her general abilities in Beethoven, so aptly demonstrated already in Dinnerstein's recording of the C minor Piano Sonata Op. 111 on the Telarc release The Berlin Concert. There are many passages in the course of this two-disc set that Dinnerstein basically "owns," and in those places, Bailey never gets in her way; he hangs back and lets Dinnerstein take the driver's seat for awhile. The two make for a great team, and there's no question that Telarc's Beethoven: Complete Works for Piano and Cello is a great recording; beautifully engineered, played with a sense of artistic purpose and professionalism.
One very satisfying aspect of this recording is that Bailey and Dinnerstein do not treat the variation sets as throwaway junk; many artists who have recorded the sonatas complete don't even include them, as they are all early pieces that relate more to the first two sonatas than to the meatier last three. However, there are some listeners who prefer the "Judas Maccabeus" Variations -- once beloved of Casals and often played by him -- to the whole set of sonatas; nevertheless, desultory readings of this piece on recordings are not unknown. Bailey and Dinnerstein play "Maccabeus" attentively and accord it with the special respect it deserves; however, they really make something magical out of the variations on "Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen" from Mozart's Magic Flute, a work recognized as having some confluence with romantic style but not seen as overtly related to it; listening to Bailey and Dinnerstein play it might change your mind about that. Conversely, the drive, drama, and push and pull of the Sonata No. 5 in D major, Op. 102/2, will have you on the edge of your seat; like dedicated actors learning their roles, Bailey and Dinnerstein have worked out their portrayals of these pieces in detail. Certainly they are not the first to do so, but the listener can really tell that this has been done; each effect is calculated toward a specific dramatic end and there's no sense here of making Beethoven do most of the work.
Telarc's recording is present, focused, and direct; the performances are fabulous; and there is a thoughtful and interesting liner note by composer Daniel Felsenfeld. No matter how many complete recordings there have already been of Beethoven's music for cello and piano, this one is a contender.