on January 30, 2014
Alisa Weilerstein is still fresh to Decca, but a little over a year after releasing the Elgar and Carter concertos, here she is with the Dvorak. She is gifted with a dynamic musical personality that clearly stands out as something extraordinary. The Dvorak Cello Concerto is grand and beautiful, but it's fairly easy to run through this piece, with the cello modestly leaving much of the show to the orchestra, which has a fully involving accompaniment, after all. But here Weilerstein completely dominates, with force that brings familiar bars fresh life. She digs in with raw emotion--a trademark of hers--enabling the music to have a feeling of greater flow, almost inevitability. Yet everything sounds natural and spontaneous so that one feels more lyricism.
Actually, this reading makes little of its impact through sheer force, at least when compared to the classic Rostropovich/Karajan reading. Much of that is due to Jiri Belohlavek and the Czech Philharmonic, who are sensitive but more lean in tone than usual, leaving the spotlight decidely on Weilerstein. Karajan and the Berliners produced a rich, sweltering sound that was as captivating as Rostropovich's playing. Here the Czech Phil is gentle, sounding idiomatic instead of powerful. I sometimes wish Belohlavek could have been more energized, letting the orchestra off the reigns instead of aiming for refined beauty--the very closing bars don't overwhelm you like they should. Such complaints are hardly major in the face of how wonderful Weilerstein is, however. She weaves every phrase with the genuine commitment of a master. Has anyone else made the concerto so personal? At times Weilerstein borders on private, drawing us to a world of aching tenderness in the second movement. I can only offer praise.
At first glance, Decca's timing seems very stingy and while it's not generous, the selections accompanied by Anna Polonsky feature the same involving playing. We move from the opulent sweetness of "Goin' Home" to the gypsy-flavored Slavonic Dance No. 8, all done with charisma that is spell-binding. The accompaniment is also very fine, so I was nearly as impressed with the fillers as with the concerto.
I have the feeling that Weilerstein may be the kind of rare talent one looks for once a generation. In any event, here is a reading of one of the most popular works in the repertoire that is transforming, a true testament to her gifts.
I heard Alisa Weilerstein playing chamber music at Spoleto USA last year, and it was impressive. She's a natural communicator, and she brings her skills wonderfully to bear in this recording of the Dvorak Cello Concerto and the six "encores" that fill up the disc. There's nothing bland about this playing -- she can roughen the texture when she thinks it's appropriate; she can give us an almost woodwind-sounding warmth and roundness at other times; and up in the higher reaches there's no loss of body although the sound is pure. So this is a fine recording -- up there in my pantheon with Rostropovich, Lynne Harrell, and the under-rated Heinrich Schiff. If you like things a bit more restrained, Yo-Yo Ma's your man, but I find this wholehearted embrace of the lyricism very appealing. The orchestra is well forward in the picture, with Weilerstein arguably a little too forward herself, but this enables you to hear her playing in the lowest register not getting swallowed up by the orchestra, and I like that texturing. Belohlavek conducts with an ear for the orchestral textures, so that throughout, in the scoring's lighter moments, there's an almost chamber-like interplay. More than with most recordings, you realize with Weilerstein just how much variety there is in the cello part -- it's not just one big swoon. The six "encores" are finely played too, and well accompanied by Anna Polonsky. The "Goin' Home" arrangement is great, of course -- one of the great melodies -- but I liked the variety and spice of the Rondo, and both Polonsky and Weilerstein rattle the rafters in the Slavonic Dance. Maybe best of all, "Silent Woods" receives an intense performance that calls on the whole range of the cello.
UPDATE (Oct 2015): I have modified my rating to 4 stars. I stand by what I reported of the playing, but I have over time become bothered by the balance, and what bothered me was focused by hearing Wallfisch's excellent account with Mackerras. As I wrote in that review: "the engineering is the problem. Weilerstein's rich, warm sound is foregrounded in the aural picture (and very well caught by the recording), and her interactions with the winds and brass are also spotlit and, again, sound great, but the listener's attention is directed away from the forward movement of the music as a whole and leaves us savoring the details." The Chandos balance is much better, and Mackerras's conducting is more positive
on January 31, 2014
Over the decades - probably like most any classical music buff - I've heard dozens of recordings of the grandaddy of all cello concertos, the Dvorak. Certainly all of Rostroprovich's numerous versions are worth hearing. I do have a 'sleeper' in my collection that I've always liked, which is with German cellist Heinrich Schiff, accompanied by the Vienna Philharmonic with conductor Andre Previn on Philips. And just to have the special, home grown flavor of the Czech Philharmonic, I've also kept a noncompetitive version with cellist Julian Lloyd Webber, brother of Andrew Lloyd Webber of "Cats" and Sarah Brightman fame. Now I can jettison that lame version altogether.
This is fabulous - no other way to put it. Weilerstein not only plays the cello with a tone to die for (helps to be on Decca), she has an inner fire that seems to have been perfectly timed for putting her Dvorak down for prosperity - she's THAT good. The Czech Phil. sounds gorgeous, with magical woodwinds that are also to die for. Belohlavek: I don't see anything 'boring' about his conducting at all. He's not trying to sound like Karajan. Typical of the authentic Czech style, he keeps his timpanist from pounding away, except when the music really calls for it. His is a thoroughly idiomatic accompaniment, emphasizing the rustic yet gorgeous quality of Dvorak's writing. But as if all this weren't enough, just take a listen to track 6: "Goin' Home".
"Goin' Home" is the famous melody that's employed to great effect in the slow movement of Dvorak's "New World" symphony (#9, of course). Weilerstein's tone is soooo gorgeous, and her phrasing so sympathetic to the rustic roots of this tune, that it's all worth the price of admission alone to hear this disc. Czech it out! 10 stars out of 5.
on March 7, 2014
This recording of the Dvorak Cello Concerto is outstanding...! I've heard this Concerto by any number of cellists..but never better than this recording by the American celiist Alisa Weilerstein..and the Czech Philharmonic..She does a beautiful job....The real deal....!!!
on April 20, 2014
This is the first issue in the Czech Philharmonic's Decca cycle of the complete Dvorak Symphonies and Concertos conducted by Jiri Belohlavek. It seems a bit surprising that for the three concertos non-Czech soloists have been chosen. While Alisa Weilerstein is clearly a good cellist, she doesn't yet have the strongest feeling for the Dvorak idiom so, full of warmth though it is, this performance cannot compete with those on famous earlier recordings such as that by Pierre Fournier with the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by George Szell from the 1960s, or later readings by Rafael Wallfisch with Charles Mackerras conducting.
Decca doesn't have an especially strong record with this concerto, though their 1950s recording, also with Fournier but with Rafael Kubelik conducting the Vienna orchestra, sounds quite good now in its CD version on Eloquence (mono) - the balance between orchestra and soloist is in some ways better than on this new, and generally much more richly recorded, version. May be a re-mix would help - as it is, in the many passages where cello and woodwind should converse, the cello predominates - an especial pity as there are some wonderful solo players - how much better the end of the slow movement could have sounded with better balance in the recording. The strings too - which can be wonderful with this orchestra - don't sing out as they should when taking over a melody that the cello has sung. Decca's other version, with Ashkenazy conducting, has a rather dull soloist, so they must b hoping for a modern success with this new version.
So far as Alisa Weilerstein herself is concerned, she shows both lyrical beauty and fire in the quicker passages, but has difficulty in achieving the integration needed - maybe partly Dvorak's fault, but the greatest soloists have overcome this. Her playing is without the distracting mannerisms of several other soloists in recorded versions.
It is rather odd that the orchestral versions of the Rondo and Silent woods were not recorded here, though these versions with piano are also authentic Dvorak. All the shorter pieces are played with full tone, rather self-consciously so in some cases, and again the balance is too much in the cello's favour, though when the piano is playing alone it seems to jump forward and come over strongly. The Rondo is mostly a lively and successful performance, but the arrangement of Goin' Home doesn't come over at all - not the players' fault. Jiri Barta on Supraphon has an interesting collection of Dvorak Cello and Piano pieces including both of these though not the arrangements by others Alisa Weilerstein gives, and this also included a complete original version of Dvorak's earlier concerto, with the piano as Dvorak wrote it.
Jiri Belohlavek has been the conductor for several earlier recordings of the concerto on CD and perhaps they are all a little disappointing so far as the soloist is concerned - the recording with Jiri Barta has a Czech soloist and is well worth hearing - though the comments about lack of integration above would apply to this performance too. Best of all of them is perhaps the version with Steven Isserlis, which can be seen and heard online but so far as I know has not yet been issued as a CD or DVD, though licensed to BVA International - Steven Isserlis's recent CD version with a tepid orchestra cannot compete with it. For those who specially want a female soloist in this work, the interesting and effective 1960s Deutsche Grammophon recording by Anja Thauer, also with the Czech Philharmonic but better balanced than the new Decca, has been reissued on CD by both Tower Japan and Hastedt.
The cover of the booklet shows Alisa Weilerstein in the woods near Dvorak's house at Vysoka - in the picture on the reverse she appears to be praying to achieve a Rusalka in reverse, just like Vaclav Hudecek standing in the same spot in the cover of his RCA LP version of the Brahms concerto. With due respect to the soloist, couldn't Decca have shown at least one picture of just the woods themselves! My copy of the CD itself is in an attractive lime green solid colour - I haven't come across this with Decca before.
Belohlavek is certainly a master conductor of Dvorak and the orchestra seems to be in fine form nowadays, so future instalments in this series, especially of the symphonies, can be looked forward to.
The rise of the female cellist seems to owe a good deal to baby-doll poses on the cover, which is nothing new to the-violinist-as-babe syndrome. But of course du Pre and Natalia Gutman represented a striking musical heritage to inspire younger cellists, and they competed on the world stage without come-hither looks. It was du Pre in particular who pioneered a free, even reckless style of playing that lifted the cello into the realms of the glamoursly exciting, something Rostropovich achieved through jaw-dropping technique and exceptional volume, the cello being rather mild on its own, especially in a large hall.
I heard Weilerstein in a very large hall - Royal Albert - where her tone was too small to make a strong impression, but here the engineers amplify the instrument so that it's louder than the orchestra; her first entry in the concerto is guns ablazing. I found it distracting even by the amped-up standards we've grown used to. There's also a drastic mismatch between her fiery, freely phrased interpretation and Jiri Bìlohlavek's accompaniment, which is bland an foursquare. I've rarely heard the long orchestral introduction to the first movement sound so d dull, no matter if he and his musicians are Czech.
Happily, Weilerstein is so fiery that the conductor joins in the spirit of her playing for the remainder of the movement. It's the Czech way to approach Dvorak without the overlay of German heaviness, and this proves a virtue in the slow movement, where the sweet, relaxed sound of the orchestra blends in beautiful ensemble with Weilerstein, whose sensitivity in phrasing slow music is quite engaging; so is the way her phrasing breathes and sings. Like du Pre, she knows how to draw a spectrum of tonal color from the cello, although du Pre was more willing to scrape and scratch if the music demanded it. Weilerstein tends toward the school that permits nothing but beautiful tons. She certainly has them at her command.
As if we need more proof that the Cellist is in charge, she ignores Bìlohlavek's moderate tempo at the start of the finale and hurries up the proceedings, a lead he soon follows. This movement is a forward-moving Allegro, but she is eager to take rhythmic liberties, shaping each phrase personally, again like du Pre, and since I would be happy to confine all my cello concerto recordings to du Pre's, this kind of passion and expressive freedom appeals to me - and to an adoring public, I'd say. there's no denying that Weilerstein brings this thrice-familiar concerto alive, and the performance deserves highest praise. She doesn't deliver a routine note, even if the conductor rarely departs from the routine when he's on his own.
the filers for cello and piano find Weilerstein in the company of a sympathetic partner, Anna Polonsky, and the engineers have reduced the cellist's tone to the fairly small, lyric sound she produces. Within this limit she's very expressive; her tendency in a selection of arrangements that are basically songs without words - a genre that Mischa Maisky had great success in - is measured and melodic. that will satisfy anyone who likes soulful cello music. I am more impressed by how she can take Goin' Home (the famous theme from the Largo of Dvorak's "New World" Sym.) and phrase it so musically that it holds one's attention from start to finish.
In short, a charismatic young talent demonstrates again why she is considered so special.
on March 6, 2014
I have another recording of this work but this performance is better. Alisa Weilerstein has a sense of passionata which brings such vitality to the piece.
on March 25, 2014
This is a marvelous performance of a masterpiece. The playing is superb and the sound is glorious. The tone of the cello comes through very well. I'd recommend this recording to anyone.
on March 27, 2014
Best Dvorak cello concerto since the 1968 Berlin recording with Rostropovich/Karajan. The Czech Philharmonic is a fortunate choice to accompany this superb artist in this repertory.
on October 8, 2014
I had high hopes for this recording. But the engineers at Decca did Ms. Weilerstein no favors by the exceedingly forward placement of the cello. It sounds as if she is playing a 30-ft instrument approximately 8 inches in front of your face. And the dominant presentation of the cello makes her playing seem overwrought, as if each note was the very last she would ever be allowed to play. Perhaps some of this is stylistic, but I think most is simply the recording. In any case, a major engineering failure for Decca.