Decca takes a chance issuing a programme like this, which features a cellist whose name will be new to many listeners playing two concertos in radically different styles.
ELGAR: Cello Concerto CARTER: Cello Concerto BRUCH: Kol Nidrei Alisa Weilerstein (cello), Staatskapelle Berlin conducted by Daniel Barenboim. Decca CD or download.
Elgar's popular concerto is an elegiac heartbreaker composed in a late romantic manner that communicates its deep sadness to even a casual listener, while Elliott Carter's much happier and more playful work is written in a high modernist style that many find impossibly difficult. Years ago the label tried a similar approach with Christoph von Dohnanyi's recordings of Mozart's late symphonies, offered in pairings with works by Webern, and buyers largely gave the project a pass, despite the high quality of the performances.
They may well meet less resistance this time. Alisa Weilerstein is a splendid cellist who plays as if possessed by the spirit of each work, the rapport between the soloist and Barenboim and his Berlin musicians has a match made in heaven quality, and, judging from the offerings available on iTunes these days, listeners have become more open to aggressively modernist music than they were 20 years ago.
Any cellist who records the Elgar concerto knows that comparisons will inevitably be made with the interpretations recorded by Jacqueline Du Pre, especially the first, 1965 account with John Barbirolli and the London Symphony Orchestra (EMI Classics). This is one of the all-time great recordings of any work, and in a note to this new release, Ms Weilerstein remarks on her own one-time obsession with that legendary performance: ''At one time I listened to Jacqueline du Pre's recording almost as a daily ritual,'' she recalls. ''She became my childhood heroine and, in sixth grade, I wrote a research paper on her. But when I was twelve and started working seriously on the piece, I knew I had to put her recordings aside. Her interpretation was so convincing, so powerful, I had to force myself to find my own way.''
Listening to Weilerstein's own version of the piece recorded here (and accompanied by conductor Daniel Barenboim, who was married to Du Pre and conducted the orchestra for her second recording), you'll hear that she matches Du Pre in bringing complete emotional openness to her interpretation. The Elgar concerto is a very dark work, reflecting the composer's mood of disillusionment following World War I. ''Everything good & nice & clean & fresh & sweet is far away _ never to return,'' he wrote in a letter quoted in the notes to Du Pre's first recording, and his pessimism is on full display in the music.
Weilerstein is as open as Du Pre to the emotional turbulence of the opening Adagio Moderato movement, as can be heard from the way she communicates the force of the solo passage that opens and the concerto and is heard again near the conclusion of the piece. The degree to which she is under the spell of the music is just as clear in the distinct emotional weight and colour that she gives to each of the notes in the descending scale leading to the rocking theme that begins in this performance at 3:27, and in the deep sorrow she communicates in her playing of bleakly beautiful theme first heard in this recording beginning at 4:08 (culminating in a wrenching outcry at 4:52 and again at 5:30).
Weilerstein takes the Allegro molto portion of the second movement at a very brisk tempo, but melancholy that permeates the concerto is always close to the surface, emerging at its most profound in an account of the following Adagio as probing and deeply felt as any that I have heard on disc. The atmosphere of the concluding movement, the longest and most complex of the four, brightens and changes, but once again, when the sombre spirit of the piece surfaces in the final passages, with references to the opening movement and the Adagio, Weilerstein and Barenboim have made sure that the ground has been well prepared.
As with the Elgar, Weilerstein's recording of the Carter concerto is confronted with a formidable predecessor. Cellist Fred Sherry assisted Carter (who was 93 at the time) as an advisor while the composer was working on the concerto, and the piece is dedicated to him. His recording of it for the Bridge label (Bridge 9184) with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Oliver Knussen is composer-approved and has powerful authority. But once again, comparison of that performance is not to Weilerstein's disadvantage.
In this concerto, Carter sets the solo cello wandering through a series of brilliantly coloured and characterised musical landscapes, each given its own brief movement. The cello interacts with each of them, sometimes in surprising ways, and each movement is invaded at the conclusion by aspects of the one that is to follow.
This concerto has been praised as one of the composer's masterpieces, but it is a less imposing and deep-spirited work than the great productions of Carter's middle period, the Double Concerto, the Piano Concerto, the second and especially the third string quartet, the Concerto for Orchestra, and the Symphony of Three Orchestras. It is lighter, much more positive in its outlook, and quite a lot easier for listeners to come to terms with on first hearing.
Weilerstein digs into it with panache, launching into the hyperactive opening of the Drammatico first movement with more passion than Sherry does, and singing more lyrically after explosive interjections from the orchestra provoke a response 15 seconds later. She also dances more light-footedly through the clicking and popping percussion of the Giocoso third movement while Sherry perhaps captures more of the nocturnal eeriness of the following Lento and the tension of the opening minutes of the penultimate Tranquillo, before the big climax. Both performances can be appreciated as memorials to the recently-deceased composer, who continued to produce remarkable music in his uniquely complicated style into his 103rd year, an achievement unprecedented in the history of music.
The disc concludes with an impassioned performance of Bruch's Kol Nidrei, which brings the programme back down into Romantic territory after the stylistic high-flying of the Carter. Recorded sound is excellent throughout.
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- Writer: Ung-Aang Talay