This is a weird and wonderful release. Recorded live in March of 2012, I understand completely why you'd want to hear Bailey in the Elgar. But anyone who's rushing out for the Indianapolis Symphony playing Smetana is not playing with a full deck of cards. Furthermore, nobody looking for the Elgar live is in the market for Czech tone poems. Besides, Telarc already has an obscure(ish) American orchestra playing the complete set – Milwaukee of all places (Telarc CD-80265) – so the picture looks even weirder. Happily, the Elgar is so magnificent and the remainder so fine that it doesn't matter much. So if you've ignored all my babble and waited for a verdict, two thumbs up is the result.
Zuill Bailey is easily one of the finest cellists alive today. His live Dvořák Concerto under Jun Märkl with these same forces (Telarc TEL-32927-02) was universally acclaimed, and rightfully so. The Elgar is so different in mood and style, and Bailey doesn't even flinch. If anything, this release is valuable simply because great readings of the Elgar are harder to come by. His reading is big-hearted and singing, maybe less heart on sleeve than the greatest British renditions but frankly none the worse if that's the case. Kudos goes to Urbański for conjuring an ideal backdrop for his soloist to paint on. The Indianapolis Symphony provides more distinguished and distinctive playing. Winds deserve special mention, but everyone does very well. Telarc provides its usual high standard of sonic excellence, and the whole disc is worth it just for the Elgar.
That brings us to the Smetana. In case you're wondering, that Milwaukee Má Vlast from the 1990's is really very good, but Telarc ups the ante with these three selections, which are more impressive overall. They aren't even mentioned on the cover or the spine, but they are notable for being the best selections in the suite and actually pair reasonably well with the Elgar. Some would doubtless disagree, and I wouldn't blame them. Urbański does have a real feeling for these works; I found the string playing throughout to be exceptional. Sound is excellent, too. Frankly, the oddity of the program should in no way deter you from picking up this disc. It was time for another great Elgar Concerto, and there's little doubt in my mind that this is it. Like I said, weird but wonderful.
Copyright © 2013, Brian Wigman