Bailey brings a robust yet light-footed approach to Bach

August 30, 2011
By Dennis Polkow

Zuill Bailey performed the complete Bach cello suites Sunday evening at Ravinia.

It was almost like being in the eye of a cultural hurricane, as a couple of hundred committed souls bravely made their way through the throngs filling up Ravinia for a sold-out show by the veteran pop group Chicago Sunday night.

That dual concert presence ensured that there were constant latecomers arriving throughout the early part of a program devoted to the complete Bach Cello Suites played by Zuill Bailey.

Bailey is no stranger to Ravinia, having played on its “Rising Stars” series twelve years ago and appearing at the festival four times since. He released a recording of the complete Bach Suites last year on Telarc and performed all six of them in Ravinia’s Bennett Gordon Hall.

Given the robust and vibrant sonority that Bailey prefers for these works, the larger Martin Theater might have made a more effective venue than the more intimate Bennett Gorden Hall, where much of the evening Bailey seemed to be overplaying.

The tone is not a beautiful one, but Bailey’s phrasing is generally convincing, his rhythms crisp, his tempos forward looking, giving the pieces a decidedly and refreshing swing quality. The dance movement sections were brisk and bouncy enough that they could have actually been danced to, a rarity as cellists often over-sentimentalize these pieces.

One curious aspect of these performances was a general lack of repeats; Bailey’s concentration seemed to waver a bit when he would come to such seams, as if to remind himself to go forward rather than back. At one point during the Fourth Suite, this led to a memory lapse that Bailey compensated for wonderfully.

The program was also presented without an intermission “in case anyone wants to catch the band,” Bailey joked at one point. And yet, since Bailey also informally spoke with the audience in between suites about various aspects of the pieces, these acted as breathers of a sort, Bailey developing a rapport with an attentive audience that soaked up his anecdotes like a sponge.

At one point Bailey was surprisingly dismissive of period-instrument cello performances, given that he makes use of some Baroque performance practices himself, characterizing them as merely “taking off the end pin of a cello, playing with shorter bow movements, not playing with vibrato nor playing with feeling or putting much into the music. How many children did Bach have? A fair amount. So he felt a fair amount, a fair amount of the time.”

The highlight of the evening was Bailey’s traversal of the Suite No. 6 in D Major, BWV 1012, which brought some of the quietest and most introspective playing of the evening, all the more remarkable given that the work requires the most virtuosic technique of the set.

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