Review: Zuill Bailey and Natasha Paremski in Raleigh
By Perry Tannenbaum
As audience members, performing artists and critics, we talk or write about how much we miss the communal ritual – and electric excitement – of gathering for live concert and theatrical events. So it was gratifying to see North Carolina Symphony, in its latest virtual concert, making an effort to replicate the experience of walking into Raleigh’s Meymandi Concert Hall and anticipating the outpouring of music from skilled virtuosos. Before Symphony oboist Joseph Peters greeted us as our host, nighttime views of the Duke Energy Center, the ticket booth, the Meymandi lobby, and stairways leading to the Hall flashed on the screen over the muffled sounds of an small group of musicians tuning up. Seeing those images and hearing those sounds made me feel afresh how much I missed the real live occasions that COVID has taken from us.
In calling upon cellist Zuill Bailey and pianist Natasha Paremski for a second time this season as guest artists, after headlining a streamed “Trout Quintet” in October, NCS was more emphatically underscoring the link between their current Streaming Series and their past history. Bailey and Paremski have guested with NCS and musical director Grant Llewelyn before, most notably in their chart-topping 2014 CD that paired Benjamin Britten’s Cello Symphony and his Cello Sonata, recorded live at Meymandi. Back in the days when Simone Dinnerstein was his chamber music partner, I saw the previous Bailey duo up in New York at Le Poisson Rouge, a unique nightclub setting, in an all-Beethoven program, celebrating the 2009 release of their Telarc set of the complete Beethoven works for cello and piano. This time, teaming up with Paremski and NCS assistant concertmaster Karen Strittmatter Galvin, Bailey brought an all-Rachmaninoff program to the Woolner Stage.
A full-length concert of Rachmaninoff chamber works with this trio would have been a handsome representation of all the Russian’s significant chamber-sized compositions, for he pretty much abandoned the salon – for larger orchestral works – after publishing his Cello Sonata in 1901. Vocalise, a song written in 1912, has been adapted for cello and piano (with many extant recordings to choose from), so that could have been comfortably wedged into this program. Trio élégiaque, written in memory of Tchaikovsky after his sudden death in 1893, was a more understandable omission. That mighty three-movement trio in D Minor, up to 40 minutes in length, was shelved for another night. We contented ourselves with the earlier Trio élégiaque No. 1 in G Minor, inspired by Tchaikovsky and his Piano Trio in A Minor, which solemnized the death of Nikolay Rubinstein in 1881.
Though both “élégiaque” trios were written before Rachmaninoff turned 21, neither can be classified as derivative or apprentice work. The famous Rachmaninoff pianism was readily apparent as soon as Paremski entered, layering onto a primordial quaver on the cello, begun by Bailey on the open strings. Four notes embedded in the four-chord piano opening built into a melody in Paremski’s hands, coalescing as Bailey zeroed in on the theme, making it instantly memorable. Galvin echoed the theme in Bailey’s wake, not the most enviable task, and then she supplanted the cellist as the main ostinato when Paremski reasserted herself at the keyboard. It was only when she followed Paremski, ascending forcefully into the treble for the first time, that Galvin proved she belonged in this elite company.
All three players converged on the first climax of this trio. Each of these swells was followed by a becalmed episode from Paremski, right after she had reminded subscribers with her lush knuckle-breaking exploits that she had played the mighty Rachmaninoff Third Concerto with NCS at Meymandi back in February. Bailey countered after these becalmed episodes with a savagery of attack that left a breathtaking impression as he initiated the thrust-and-parry of the trio that culminated in the next swell of convergence. It was in the build-up to the third and final tutti, launched passionately by Bailey and answered by Paremski with a frenzied cascade of treble, that a new peak of amorous heat was achieved. Listening to numerous recordings, I wasn’t able to find anything comparable to either this mutual abandon or this power held in reserve. Where this paid off most handsomely was in the aftermath, where the stately quiet of Paremski’s playing, so much more vividly contrasted to the previous fireworks than any other performance I auditioned, suddenly reminded me that Rachmaninoff had truly aimed for an elegy with his dirge-like ending.
When Galvin sat down with Peters for an intermission chat, she offered some insight into what we he had just witnessed. Apparently, that video was not the trio’s only take. After the first, she revealed, the group decided – without any feedback from the empty hall – that they could do better. So on the second take, they had made their entrances from offstage as if an audience were there awaiting them: “It was though a switch flipped, and we were in performance mode. Even though the chairs were empty, because we have that muscle memory of walking onstage and being ready to perform, all of a sudden it was as if we could feel the audience with us, and we were very much in the headspace of this is a performance for an audience. They may not be physically present, but we can feel them on the other side of the camera.”
Our own memories of live concerts deprived us of another touch the trio had applied in establishing an elegiac atmosphere – coming on with mostly black attire, including black masks. That’s pretty much customary attire for all Symphony concerts. We could only appreciate that solemnity in retrospect as Bailey and Paremski returned for the Rach Cello Sonata. Paremski had changed into a maroon-colored dress while Bailey had discarded his black jacket, previously worn over a black shirt and tie, in favor of a royal blue blazer. They made their entrances masked as before, but both players unmasked as soon as they were seated, allowing us to fully savor their expressiveness.
On the strength of this performance, I would have to conclude that this epic Cello Sonata, longer than any that Chopin or Beethoven wrote, is criminally under-recorded. Aside from Rostropovich in 1960 and Paul Tortelier in 1968, I cannot find a single performance by any of the cello giants until Lynn Harrell teamed with Vladimir Ashkenazy in 1986. Du Pré, Piatigorsky, Fournier, and Casals all passed on the piece, as far as I can tell. Obviously, the barometer of critical esteem has shifted since then, for the beauties of the work have drawn such advocates as Alisa Weilerstein, Gautier Capuçon, Janos Starker, and Yo-Yo Ma. The opening Lento switched quickly to the more prevalent Allegro moderato section of the opening movement, the longest of the piece, and there was an agitated, expectant calm-before-the-storm that gave added electricity to the exciting climax, culminating in a ferociously abrupt ending.
So help me, the piano vamp that opens the ensuing Allegro scherzando movement has become among Rachmaninoff’s most recognizable melodies for me, yet the melody that Bailey introduced afterwards was unutterably lovely, and the mellower one that followed was almost its equal. Before you knew it, Bailey and Paremski were up in the stratosphere, circling each other in preparation for a thrilling descent into the main theme, grown more restless and turbulent than before. Influenced by Russian Orthodox hymns, the Andante was the only forgettable music of the evening, anticipating later Rachmaninoff melody that we know without ever quite capturing the magic. Bailey was especially effective in advocating for the sublimity of the piece while Paremski was true to the composer’s idiomatic lyricism.
The NCS program booklet, made available online for download, probably offered the most plausible reason for the neglect this piece had suffered for the first 60 years after it was completed: it has been described as “a piano sonata with cello accompaniment.” You only needed to listen to the final, achingly lovely Allegro mosso movement to see how ridiculous such a dismissal was. Paremski began this powerful valedictory, but it was Bailey who introduced the first jubilant theme and then its ruminative successor – with a glittery accompaniment caressing it from the keyboard. Paremski certainly had a role, pounding the keys and delivering a fine monologue that Bailey answered in kind. But when the two combined on the peak of the movement – and the entire Sonata – it was the chords from the piano that gave the stately music its anthemic stamp. Tempo quickened furiously in the gallop that overtook the final brooding lull, leaving us with a jubilant finish.