Music of Barber, Copland, Bernstein, and Foss. Zuill Bailey, cello; Lara Downes, piano. Steinway & Sons 30025.
What more could you ask for than a collaboration between preeminent cellist Zuill Bailey and innovative pianist Lara Downes? I've admired their work separately for several years already, and now they've produced an album together.
For the present album of tunes by Barber, Copland, Bernstein, and Foss, Mr. Bailey plays a 1693 Mateo Goffriller cello and Ms. Downes a Steinway Model D, so not only do we get a couple of the finest musicians in the world playing the music, they do it on a couple of the finest musical instruments possible. Kind of a two-for-one deal, which isn't even counting the superb quality of the music itself. And just to make myself clear, the music, the performances, and the sound are extraordinary.
In a booklet note, Ms. Downes says "The transcriptions and concert pieces collected here are all big, beautiful examples of nostalgic American music. But this is timeless music, too, its romanticism, spirit of adventure, playfulness and purity tap into our collective memory, our underlying, ongoing, deeply American nostalgia for what we all know simply as some other time." The nostalgia is for the four American composers represented on the program and for a "golden" time in American culture when concert music held a more-important place than it does today. As such, the music is romantic, adventurous, sweet, and utterly delightful, presented lovingly by the two star performers.
The first three items come to us from the pen of composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein: "Dream With Me" from the 1950 Broadway production of Peter Pan; "Some Other Time" from the 1944 musical On the Town; and "In Our Time," an unused song only recently published. All three are lushly nostalgic and appropriately sentimental. And they're exquisitely beautiful, with Bailey and Downes providing just the right amount of wistfulness and melancholy without the music becoming maudlin or melodramatic.
Next up we find Samuel Barber's Sonata for Cello and Piano, written in 1932. There's a haunting beauty about the piece, poignant at first and then becoming ever more lighthearted before settling back into a somewhat heavier concluding mood. After that, Bailey and Downes give us their take on one of Barber's most-popular songs, "Sure on This Shining Night," the performance giving us a delightfully lyrical dialogue between voice (cello) and piano.
Following those numbers, we have a couple of works by Lucas Foss, the first, "For Lenny," is a 1988 tribute to Bernstein, borrowing the style of his West Side Story and given a charming interpretation by Bailey and Downes. Then there's Foss's Capriccio for Cello and Piano, a sort of tribute to the music of Aaron Copland, borrowing its style from things like Rodeo and Billy the Kid. Bailey and Downes provide it with plenty of good-natured spunk and vigor.
Three more Bernstein numbers follow: "For Lucas Foss" (a lot of crossbreeding here); the Sonata for Clarinet and Piano, the composer's first published piece; and "For Aaron Copland."
The performers conclude the album with two selections from that most "American" of American composers, Aaron Copland: "Simple Gifts," the Shaker tune Copland used in his 1944 ballet Appalachian Spring; and the traditional ballad "Long Time Ago" from Old American Songs. With them Bailey and Downes provide a pleasingly evocative and highly satisfying ending to the proceedings.
Producer Daniel Merceruio and engineer Daniel Shores recorded the music at Sono Luminus Studios, Boyce, Virginia in September 2013. The sound is gorgeous, the cello richly expressive, the piano every bit as impressive. The two musicians sit with the cello on the left, piano slightly to the right, with both instruments showing up clearly and brilliantly. Moreover, they sound so realistic, you'd think they were live in the room with you. It's all as perfect as the music itself.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here: