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Zuill Bailey’s new release of Bach cello solos is bracing, pleasurable and inspiring

UPDATED: Thu., July 15, 2021

By Larry Lapidus For The Spokesman-Review

As though the COVID-19 pandemic had never happened, bringing the normal patterns of life, and particularly those of the performing arts, to an eerie and threatening standstill, Zuill Bailey is back to work. On Monday, he will be rehearsing in Manito Park for the Mozart on a Summer’s Eve concerts, which take place on July 20 and 21. Also on Monday, Octave Records is making available his new recording of the Six Suites for Solo Cello of Johann Sebastian Bach.

As we all know, the pandemic did happen, and it moved Bailey very deeply. In March and April of 2020, he experienced a serious bout of depression. Accustomed for years to the ringing of cellphones, roar of jet engines and ceaseless jabber of negotiations, Bailey found himself craving silence and solitude. Withdrawing from the world, he stopped listening to or studying or making music. He did not touch his cello.

When he returned to it, he turned first to the suites for solo cello by Bach, which he had studied and performed for decades. What poured out of him, however, was something radically new. He describes the experience as one more of “channeling” than performing. Bailey’s identity as a performer was formed within a society that was starkly different from that in which J.S. Bach produced his magnificent corpus of work.

In the early 1720s, when Bach composed the Suites, a musician was a servant, forever subordinate to his employers. By 1791, when Mozart died and Beethoven was starting to make his way in the world as a composer and pianist, the role of performing musician had begun a dramatic change. The bourgeoisie thronged to Beethoven’s concerts, snapped up his published scores and placed him among the most celebrated figures in Europe.

By the time of Beethoven’s death, certain composers and performing musicians had come to be regarded as gods, while the music they performed was reduced to the status of a mere vehicle for their charismatic and mercurial personalities.

The developing primacy of the performer from the death of Bach through the ascendancy of Liszt to the career of Bailey is visible in the musical scores produced over that span of time. It is visible in the proliferation of instructions to the performer that covered the pages of music increasingly as the 19th century progressed.

On the pages of the manuscripts that have survived of Bach’s Six Suites for Solo Cello, there are no such markings because Bach assumed that the audience would feel the appropriate emotions as a natural response to the correct performance of the music by a player practicing the very sort of selfless channeling that Bailey achieved after his dark night of the soul.

A comparison of his 2010 recording with the new one provides a striking illustration. In the new recording, Bailey’s playing is far less rhetorical, that is, less concerned with controlling the effects it has on the listener through dramatic dynamic contrasts, conspicuous changes in tempo or purely “cellistic” effects.

An element has almost disappeared from the new recording that dominates the earlier one: Bailey himself. The listener does not feel that the music is being performed for him, but rather that he is overhearing it, as one might hear someone whistling as they pass by on the sidewalk, quite unaware that anyone is listening.

It would be easy to infer from such a description that the new recording is less affecting, less varied or less engaging than either his earlier one or than recordings by other cellists. In fact, the very opposite is true. With the dramatic figure of the artist-hero out of the way, new vistas of expression, intensity and variety open before us.

Expressive changes seem to arise from within the music rather than being imposed from without, as though Bach’s vision is being revealed to us pure and unmediated. Of course, this is an illusion, but Bailey brings it off. The effect is so bracing, so pleasurable, so inspiring that I cannot think of another among the dozens of other recorded versions known to me that equals it.

These remarkable performances have been selected by Octave Records as the first classical offering in their catalog of advanced audio recordings, affording 250 times the resolution of a conventional CD. At present, they can be obtained only via download at psaudio.com/octave-records. When they are released on CD, they will be available for purchase at all Northwest BachFest concerts.

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