“Arpeggione,” transcriptions and an original work for cello and guitar – Zuill Bailey, David Leisner

(Azica Records)

What a splendid idea this is, a virtuoso recital for guitar and cello! Most of the items on the program have been transcribed for the self-same genre by David Leisner, and are heard in their première recordings. Leisner, one of the finest guitarists of our time, has made intelligent transcriptions that allow both instruments to be heard to best advantage. At the same time, he knows when to step out of the spotlight in favor of the rich eloquent sound of Zuill Bailey’s cello as it soars to expressive heights that other cellists can only dream of matching. Zuill obviously loves playing his instrument as few people enjoy doing anything else, and the results are abundantly evident in a very attractive program that melds the sounds of two dissimilar string instruments, bowed and strummed, to utter perfection.

The title of the album is taken from Franz Schubert’s Sonata in A minor, D821, known as the “Arpeggione” after a very short-lived instrument of that name that was basically a guitar that was fretted to permit it to be bowed. Schubert knew the inventor and obligingly composed the only masterwork for that decidedly odd instrument that it was ever to enjoy. Today, it is always played in transcription for other instruments, usually for cello but also for viola, clarinet, harp, double bass, and even tuba and euphonium.

The present recording is the 121st in the current catalog, and may be the most satisfying yet in terms of the fine blend and mutual rapport Leisner and Bailey display here. One thrilling moment occurs in the opening movement when the wistfully melancholy cello melody gives way suddenly to a lively and sensational Hungarian dance with thumping chords from the guitar in support. The Adagio, a meditation on a hymn-like subject, is followed by the finale, an allegretto rich in rapturous and charming incidents.

Manuel de Falla’s Seven Spanish Popular Songs is another work that has enriched multiple repertoires besides the original version for soprano voice and piano. The transcription heard here was not solely Leisner’s but is based on the guitar arrangement by Falla’s friend Miguel Llobet and a cello version by Maurice Maréchal. Leisner adapted the melody of the Song Seguidilla murciana from the original vocal line to that of the cello by discretely changing octaves in order to avoid repeated notes. This is one type of Flamenco. Jota (#4) is another. Asturiana (#3) is said to have been sung by miners, grateful at seeing the beauty of the starlit sky after a long underground shift. Nana is a tender lullaby, and Polo a song expressing the anger of a jilted lover. Canción (Song) perhaps lends itself best of all to Bailey’s exalted lyricism.

Next up is the world premiere recording of Leisner’s Twilight Streams, a new work written expressly for himself and Zuill Bailey. The titles show the influence of Chinese philosophy and painting: empty dark, full dark, empty light, full light and adrift at twilight. “Empty” in the oriental sense is not the same as in ours, for it implies a place where all things go to be reborn. As the work progresses, we get a wonderful lift from these artists, as well as a growing sense of freedom.

There follow no fewer than four encores, beginning with Gluck’s Dance of the Blessed Spirits, Saint-Saëns’ The Swan, and the “Aria” from Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasileiras # 5. All are justly famed for their exalted beauty. At the end, we have the ultimate encore: Niccolò Paganini’s Variations for the fourth string on the aria "Dal tuo stellato soglio" from Mosè in Egitto by Rossini. How the devil you can play this piece, as memorable in musical terms as it is virtuosic, on a single violin or cello string is better seen than described (fortunately, there are several YouTube videos that you can easily access). Finger work, particularly the swooping glides involving widely spaced fingers, is the key to success, more so than bowing. This altogether sensational encore will have you on the edge of your seat!

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Zuill Bailey