NICO MUHLY: Cello Concerto; ERNEST BLOCH: Schelomo; Three Jewish Poems – Zuill Bailey, cello/Indianapolis Sym. Orch./Jun Märkl – Steinway & Sons

NICO MUHLY: Cello Concerto; ERNEST BLOCH: Schelomo; Three Jewish Poems – Zuill Bailey, cello/Indianapolis Sym. Orch./Jun Märkl – Steinway & Sons 30049 (1/13/15) 64:53 ****:

A very good reason to hear this release is to hear the wonderful playing of Zuill Bailey. I have heard Mr. Bailey but once before in his amazing recording of the Britten Cello Symphony, but he is a compelling artist. Bailey is gifted with a beautiful tone, fabulous technique and sensitive interpretation.

Of the three works here, Ernst Bloch’s Schelomo (Hebraic Rhapsody for Cello and Orchestra) is the war horse. This long, plaintive and dramatic tone poem (almost) for cello and orchestra takes its inspiration from The Book of Ecclesiastes and, in this work, the cello is intended to be the voice of Solomon as the work weaves its way, luxuriously; sometimes mournfully, through three section; an opening rhapsody, a middle which utilizes an old German-Jewish melody, from Bloch’s childhood, Kodosh Attoh and a final, desperate utterance from the cello as Solomon cries for humanity. I have heard this work many times, including once with Zara Nelsova. Bailey’s performance here ranks with the best.

Bloch’s Three Jewish Poems is another of the works for cello and orchestra that the composer thought of as his “Jewish Cycle” (which were written over fifteen years beginning in 1911 with this work, continuing with Schelomo and Baal Shem and culminating in 1926 with The Voice in the Wilderness. Almost all of Bloch’s work speaks to his heritage and his own personal experiences growing up in central Europe. This particular work was new to me and I find it lovely and quite personal. The three movements each carry a different tone: Danse and Rite both have a very ceremonial sound to them while the last, Cortège funèbre, was written specifically to commemorate Bloch’s father.

One of the best reasons to acquire this recording is to hear the new and scintillating Cello Concerto by the young American composer Nico Muhly. Muhly is a graduate of Columbia and has been writing music since he was barely in junior high school. He studied with John Corigliano and Christopher Rouse (to help underscore his youth!)  I have heard some of his music before, most notably his opera Two Boys and his chamber work Drones. What I have heard I like a great deal. His style is refreshingly hard to describe but is consistently colorful and captivating. The middle Part Two to his Concerto is especially lovely and makes maximum use of a drone that evolves into a tinkling a metallic percussion and brass. The finale is a bright, propulsive example of what the composer calls “process music” – in this case a highly engaging style that carries some John Adams-like riffs into near-jazz territory. This is a wonderful work and, honestly, I would get this recording for just this piece.

Regardless, Bailey’s work on all of these bona fide showpieces is ecstatic and I haven’t heard the Indianapolis Symphony in a while (not since Raymond Leppard to be honest) but they are a first class orchestra and German conductor Jun Märkl gets some great results from them. I enjoyed this disc a lot and Steinway & Sons (also new to me as their recording division) produced a very full-sounding recording (which was actually done by Michael Bishop and Thomas Moor of Five/Four Productions – formerly with Telarc) with very helpful jewelbox-alternative packaging.

—Daniel Coombs

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