Brahms: Sonata in e minor for cello and piano
J.S. Bach: Suite No. 1 for cello solo
Franck: Sonata in A Major
Mendelssohn: Variations Concertantes
Appearing at the Petit Trianon Theatre in San Jose, the virtuoso duo of Awadagin Pratt, piano, and Zuill Bailey, cello, offered a substantial and powerful concert on March 22. The program included masterpieces of the 18th and 19th century with emphasis on the music and influence of J.S. Bach.
Awadagin Pratt, Naumberg winner and Avery Fisher Career Grant recipient, is Resident Artist and Professor at the University of Cincinnati. He opened the program with the Chaconne by J.S. Bach, originally for violin solo, transcribed for piano by the pianist and composer Ferruccio Busoni in the late 19th century. The resonance of a modern grand piano only adds to the grandeur of the work, and Pratt took full advantage. His opening sound was beautifully balanced and the sustaining pedal was used sparingly. But as the drama increased, much of the detail was lost in the thickening texture.
Cellist Zuill Bailey is Professor at The University of Texas at El Paso. He and Pratt have performed together for many years, and they have recorded several albums individually and together. They were at ease with the Sonata in e minor by Brahms, a work they have often performed together. The lyrical opening statements displayed warmth of sound that Bailey coaxed from his cello, made in 1693 by Matteo Goffriller. The instrument was especially rich in the lower registers. The duo seemed to glide effortlessly through the minuet-like second movement. The challenge of the last movement is with the balance of piano and cello. Here, Brahms writes a three-part fugue, with two of those parts assigned to the piano. Whenever the two instruments play in the same register, the cello sound is all but cancelled by the piano writing. And in this concert, it was impossible to compete with the Yamaha CFX grand piano.
The Bach tribute continued next when Zuill Bailey played the Suite No. 1 for solo cello by J.S. Bach. The six suites of Bach occupy a special place in the repertory, and cellists spend years exploring the many possibilities of interpretation. As Bailey explained from the stage, Bach did not provide performance details. The score indicates only the notes, but nothing about volume, speed, and other interpretive information. Each player has the freedom to make decisions about how to play this music. On this occasion, Bailey chose to play the Suite with an emphasis on rhythmic vitality. Tempos generally were fast and articulations crisp.
The Sonata in A Major by César Franck was published for violin and piano in 1886, and soon after, with the permission of the composer, a version for cello was issued. This work of late 19th century French romanticism suits the Pratt-Bailey duo well. The transfer from violin to cello is not usual in classical music, but somehow it works exceedingly well in this case. There are few conflicts of register, and the cello soars through the long melodies supported by the rich piano sonorities.
As an encore to the announced program, the duo performed Mendelssohn’s Variations Concertantes, composed in 1829. This delightful work was written for Mendelssohn’s younger brother, probably for the occasion of one of the many family house concerts. The performance here was like a refreshing dessert to a large meal. Pratt and Bailey work well together as a duo team, with performances that are engaging and exciting to hear.