Monday 25 July 2016

Celebrating the 60th birthday of Alexander Baillie, Somm release a recording from the cellist, partnered by pianist, John Thwaites of Brahms’ two cello sonatas in performances that prove to be rather special

Alexander Baillie is internationally recognised as one of the finest cellists of his generation. He began playing the cello at the comparatively late age of twelve having been directly inspired by the late Jacqueline du Pré (1945-1987). He went on to study at London's Royal College of Music with Joan Dickson (1921-1994) and Anna Shuttleworth (b.1927) and with André Navarra (1911-1988) in Vienna. He later studied with William Pleeth, Pierre Fournier (1906-1986) and Mstislav Rostropovich (1927-2007), and with Jacqueline du Pré herself.

Since then his career has taken him all over the world. He has appeared with many British and European orchestras, has worked with Sir Simon Rattle and Sir John Eliot Gardiner and appears regularly as soloist in concertos, recitals and festivals. He has given notable first performances at the BBC Proms of works such as ‘Sieben Liebeslieder’ by Hans Werner Henze, Takemitsu's "Orion and Plaiedes" and Colin Matthews' First Cello Concerto, which is dedicated to him.

Recordings include the Tippett Triple Concerto with the composer conducting and the Shostakovich First Concerto with Benjamin Zander and the Boston Philharmonic. His version of the Britten Cello Suites achieved the highest acclaim in the New York press.

He features in Jan Harlan's film ‘Dvorak...who?’ about the motivation for young people falling in love with classical music. He is Professor of Cello at the University of Bremen Hochschule für Künste, founder member of ‘Gathering of the Clans’ Cello School and Honorary Doctor of Music at Hertfordshire University. His own cello festival at Carteret, Normandy recently celebrated its 10th year.

His recordings include Elgar's Concerto on Conifer, the Tippett Triple Concerto on Nimbus with Sir Michael Tippett conducting and the Gordon Crosse Concerto with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Martyn Brabbins on the N.M.C. label. His recordings of the Britten Cello Suites and the Sonata achieved the highest acclaim in the New York press.

To celebrate his 60th birthday Somm Recordings  have just released a new recording featuring Alexander Baillie and pianist, John Thwaites in Johannes Brahms’ two cello sonatas coupled with a transcription of Brahms’ Four serious Songs.


For this recording John Thwaites has chosen three different pianos, a Rönisch grand piano c. 1860, an Ehrbar grand piano c. 1877/78 and a rare Streicher concert grand dated from 1878. It was a 1868 Streicher that Brahms owned from 1871 until his death, a gift from the maker.

What a wonderfully rich cello tone Alexander Baillie brings to the opening of the Allegro non Troppo of the Sonata for Cello and Piano No.1 in E minor, Op.38, soon finding a wistful feel with John Thwaites’ Rönisch grand piano bringing a lovely delicate fluency. They rise through passages of great passion, finding much poetry as well as moments of great anguish revealed by Baillie’s fine tone. Baillie provides some wonderful textures and sonorities with moments, when this cellist reaches the higher range of his instrument, of immense emotional depth before a lovely gentle end.

They bring a fine, rhythmic lift to the Adagio - Andante con moto proving to be a terrific duo, shaping the music wonderfully. There is a lovely flow in the Andante, a fine rubato with some lovely, subtle little surges. This is wonderfully controlled playing, Baillie often bringing a wonderfully rich and resonant tone.

This fine duo again prove to be an intuitive partnership in the finely shaped opening of the Allegro bringing much energy and revealing many subtleties before finding more energy to hurtle forward with tremendous agility and strength, through stormy passages, to the fiery coda.  

What a terrific opening to the Allegro vivace of the Sonata for Cello and Piano No. 2 in F major, Op.99, full of volatility before the music slows and Baillie finds a richer, sonorous tone. Stormy emotions abound with this cellist bringing some terrific emotional thrust, backed no less by Thwaites who reveals the Ehrbar piano to have a fuller tone. Midway there is a moment of hushed expectation before they rise through some fast and fluent passages to a crisp resolute coda.  

The Adagio affettuoso brings some terrific pizzicato cello phrases, rich and deep over a lovely piano line. Soon Baillie brings a heart rending tone, developing through some quite wonderful passages, finely structured, paced and phrased before rising suddenly to some very fine pizzicato passages. Thwaites does a fine job shaping the piano part with Baillie later bringing some strong, resonant pizzicato phrases that increase the tension before an exquisite conclusion.

John Thwaites opens the Allegro passionate with a surging, rhythmic instability immediately joined by Alexander Baillie in a passionate outpouring. These two show their instinctive feel for this music with incredible volatility and a terrific forward drive. Thwaites keeps an underlying volatility in the gentler central section with Baillie adding a subtle emotional pull, a volatility they retain right through the varying passages, later picking to surge forward again with tautly rhythmic phrasing to the tightly controlled coda.

Baillie and Thwaites find a sunnier, though no less energetic Allegro molto, moving through moments of broader sonorities, beautifully shaped before rising through some incisive passages of great strength to a terrific conclusion.

Brahms was in a sombre mood as he approached what was to be his last birthday in 1896. Clara Schumann was lying seriously ill following a stroke and the composer had lost many of those closest to him. It was then that he wrote his Four Serious Songs, Op.121, a setting of biblical texts from Ecclesiastes and Corinthians.

These songs work extremely well in the transcription made by the great Russian cellist, Daniil Shafran (1923-1997), a transcription that Alexander Baillie has built on in this performance. The first text observes that man is no different to the animals in that ‘as the one dieth, so dieth the other.’ The text of the second song laments the world’s injustices. The third text speaks of the bitterness of death for one still in his prime and the final text reflects on Christian charity

John Thwaites’ Streicher piano brings some deep sonorities to Denn es gehet dem Menschen to which Alexander Baillie adds his own rich tone, running through passages of dark hued emotion with a faster moving, fleet central section before the more sombre music picks up to move quickly to the coda.

Baillie brings a lovely singing tone to Ich wandte mich before finding moments of exquisite beauty and poetry with an increasingly passionate tone.

O Tod, wie bitter bist du opens with passionate phrases for cello over which are gentler piano chords before finding a forward moving stance, moving through a gently flowing passage that rises in drama with these two finding every little nuance.

Baillie and Thwaites bring an exhilarating opening to Wenn ich mit Menschen - und mit Engelszungen redete with a fine rubato and phrasing, rising through moments of greater passion. Midway Baillie finds some lovely sonorous tones with Thwaites’ piano bringing some fine, rich textures in these slower passages, exquisitely shaped before a gentle coda. 

This is one of those rather special discs that one will want to return to for the special qualities these artists bring.  Alexander Baillie provides playing of great emotional depth and is wonderfully accompanied by John Thwaites. They receive a good recording though the instruments are set back in the rather resonant acoustic of the Gert Hecher Klavier-Athelier, Vienna. There are excellent booklet notes from John Thwaites on the music and choice of pianos and performance practice. The nicely illustrated booklet has a painting of the two performers by artist and musician, Christel Baillie  on the cover.

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