Zuill Bailey didn’t just perform all six of Bach’s Suites for Unaccompanied Cello at Strathmore on Saturday. He treated the hugely appreciative audience to a sort of running memoir, recounting his struggles growing up with this extraordinary set.
These struggles — and Bailey’s decade-long preparation for a recording, issued in 2010 — have led to an idiosyncratic understanding of the suites, which have challenged the greatest cellists of the past century, from Pablo Casals to Yo-Yo Ma. If some of Bailey’s decisions seemed glorious and others felt odd, and if, among his many feats of cello wizardry, there were moments when the magnitude of the technical challenge seemed to overwhelm his ambition, it was, nevertheless, an enormously intelligent and musically courageous performance.
The Prelude to the first Suite is the one people are most likely to recognize, but Bailey launched into it with a quick and aggressive angularity that set it apart from more conventional readings and gave notice that this was not to be your grandfather’s Bach. This impression was confirmed in the Courantes of the first two Suites, which he took in full voice and at breakneck speed. The muddiness that resulted was intensified by the rich lower tones of the huge cello he plays, built in 1693 (when Bach was 8 years old). But these were chances worth taking and which, with a different instrument and in a more intimate hall, might have worked.
The rest was Bach at his most lucid and intriguing. Bailey seemed to revel in both the playfulness of the Gigues that end each Suite and the sensual longing that oozed from the Sarabandes. His cello spoke in a wonderful array of subtle voices in the Allemandes and Bourées and, as a master performer, he timed the break between movements to dramatic perfection.
Reinthaler is a freelance writer.