on October 30, 2012
Decca wants to turn its debut of Alisa Weilerstein into an occasion. No one has been able to erase memories of Jacqueline du Pre in the Elgar Cello Concerto; no doubt performers feel intimidated. The dominance of du Pre is realized when Amazon's editorial review tries to hype this recording by pointing out that du Pre's husband Daniel Barenboim hasn't touched the piece much without his wife. Could it be that a bit of the du Pre magic has continued with Barenboim?
The problem, of course, is that the magic was never Barenboim's. Weilerstein is left with the same mountain to climb as the rest of du Pre's successors. For Weilerstein, the best way to compete with du Pre is to try a completely different approach. Du Pre pushed forward with searing passion, baring her soul with no attempt to mask her feelings. While Weilerstein showcases Elgarian richness and melancholy, she is considerably more reserved. On the podium, Barenboim places less stress on grandeur, aiming to emphasize the work's dark undercurrent. He makes the Staatskapelle Berlin play from the bottom up. Both conductor and soloist seem to agree that reticence has its place. While they make the concerto have darker hues, the whole event ends up sounding less personal, sometimes mannered. There's little overt excitement. This hurts the 2nd movement the most, as Barenboim unwisely chooses to smooth out the sudden surprises near the opening, erasing all hushed anticipation. The rest of the concerto fares better, thankfully, with both interpreters seeming to understand Elgar's world. (There's not much restlessness, and melancholy doesn't become impatience). While there is much to admire about this recording, I miss the final thrust of inspiration. We hear personality, to be sure, but I feel that the music is being played from a distance, with Weilerstein admiring the concerto instead of completely taking over.
The Carter Concerto is new to me. It's an aggressive work with none of the beauty of the Elgar. For all I can tell, this is a fine reading. I'm sure its fans will be pleased to see it recorded by big names on a major label. If you're willing to get into the austere work, this interpretation beckons, particularly because of the wonderful sound. Weilerstein's tone is dark and biting, as if seeking to find meaning in the midst of chaos. Barenboim's conducting is full of sarcasm, allowing the work's forward-looking scoring (there's significant percussion) to come across clearly.
Weilerstein and Barenboim take Bruch's Kol Nidrei with much darkness, giving it a lonely feel. I appreciate the commitment, even though it can sound idiosyncratic. Again, excitement isn't a big concern, but it's hard to complain in the face of such lovely playing.
For Weilerstein, then, this is a success. These are interesting readings in very good sound. Weilerstein doesn't erase memories of Du Pre, but to be fair, no one has. She does prove, along with sensitive Barenboim, that there are alternative ways to success in the Elgar.
P.S. January 2014: Having just posted a review of Weilerstein's new Dvorak release, I must say that I am now a complete believer in Weilerstein, and find my initial hesitations about this album intangible. I hope to soon get around to fully editing this review.
on December 16, 2012
I had the pleasure of interviewing the cellist Alisa Weilerstein prior to her appearance in Philadelphia, and she said that while concertos of the late romantic Elgar and the late modernist Elliott Carter are "diametrically opposed," it made sense to juxtapose them, for, as she said, "To understand where you're going, you have to know where you're coming from." The Elgar, she said, is a heartbreaking requiem for an age shattered by war, while the Carter is rhythmically angular, moving in fits and starts, yet full of wit and good humor. (Daniel Barenboim, who suggested the pairing, encouraged her to find the humor, telling her, "You can't play Carter between your teeth.") For me, the Cello Concerto is the most impressive and substantial of Mr. Carter's late orchestral works, and, among his solo concerti, second only to the Piano Concerto in its impact. Weilerstein finds the right expressive touch for both Carter and Elgar, as different as they might be. Her tone is warm, her attack sharp, and the Staatskapelle Berlin, conducted by Barenboim, plays with beauty and sensitivity. Most listeners will come to this disk for the Elgar and stay for the Carter. Some will approach it from the opposite direction, as I did, but everyone will find something here to admire.
Sigh: twenty-plus reviews and no more than two or three from stalwarts which actually attempt to evaluate this recording in any depth or present a useful response from the point of view of an educated amateur listener. Even if we discount the morons who complain about download problems or the delivery service, there's not much to go on; my favourite is the "review" on Amazon UK which says "I can't review this because I gave it to someone as a present and I haven't heard it." Give me strength.
Not that I can make any claims that this review will be a paradigm but let me at least try to put it in the context of other recordings and provide some sort of justification for what will always be a subjective reaction.
I had barely heard of Alisa Weilerstein - my bad - but a friend introduced me to this CD and it immediately made me prick up my ears, sit up and beg - then roll over. Having played it a few times now, I am faintly suspicious that I am being seduced by a marginally over-egged playing style which borders on an overt emotionalism not entirely consonant with the noble restraint Elgar probably intended - but I'm sorry, I love it.
Inevitable comparisons with the Du Pré recordings - the latter live with the young Barenboim - are odious and otiose; obviously Weilerstein studied them but the Barbirolli was taped in 1965 and the Barenboim in 1970, while Weilerstein was born in 1982, so let's move on here. Both are clearly big personalities in comparison to the more "British" approach favoured by such as Yo-Yo Ma, the "aristocratic" Fournier and the frequently overlooked but deeply moving version by Julian Lloyd Webber, but Du Pré is more released and tigerish; Weilerstein is more ripely Romantic. Barenboim and the typically accomplished Staatskapelle Berlin take a back seat to their soloist and the recording favours her unnaturally in ensemble - but one must expect that; the sound is otherwise wonderful.
So we hear an artist in the plenitude of her powers; one minor squawk up top apart during the fiendish "coloratura" passages and double stopping in the Allegro molto, this is superlative playing. The thing which immediately strikes the listener is the extraordinary depth and resonance of her tone; I think this is the lushest, plushest cello-playing I have ever heard. Although I haven't heard her live and allowing for recording manipulation, I suspect that she makes a bigger sound than Sol Gabetta, whose rather small-scale performance I heard in the Festival Hall in October 2012. She clearly takes a few minor liberties with markings but I would call that justifiable interpretation; certainly I am utterly convinced by the integrity of her conception.
The Kol Nidrei is given a similarly intense, brooding performance without tipping over into sentimentality. Ms Weilerstein is also apparently a champion of modern works; regarding the merits of the Elliott Carter concerto, I shall leave their elucidation to convicted Modernists. As far as I am concerned, it is unredeemed cacophony and I shall never play it again.
But the Elgar is set to be my favourite account in modern sound.
on November 7, 2012
Alisa Weilerstein is quite outstanding amongst today's young generation of cellists. Apart from her superb authority and big bold tone, What I like about this disc is that each piece connects but is totally disparate. The Elgar has the Barenboim / Du Pre Connection - it is a huge compliment to weilerstein that Barenboim chose to record it for the first time since his late wife. Carter who sadly just died has always been one of Barenboim's chief enthusiasms and plays to weilerstein's American side. w
While this is no easy listen, ironically putting it between two romantic warhorses is the ideal way to appreciate its surprisingly lyrical possibilities, which Weilerstein exploits to the full; while the Bruch is of course a nod to both artists' Jewish background.
Playing and recording quality are outstanding - this is a seriously good disc.
on May 22, 2016
Elliott Carter was a one-of-a-kind composer. Beneath the complexity of his music lay something of an imp, as well as an ardent classicist. In no place is this more true than his concerti. In places the orchestra and soloist are very much at cross-purposes. Sardonic remarks pass among instruments while the soloist soars in elegiac passages. In other spots, the soloist is in on the joke. Different groups of instruments often lead the musical sense from one mood to another--in an instant. Weilerstein "gets" this. Her confident performance moves as the score demands, from play to song to protest. It's a worthy addition to my Carter collection.
Elgar is perhaps the most English of composers, and his Cello Concerto has proven to be an enduring addition to the repertory. But I feel that it's best played with a certain reserve. Much of the emotional content is most effectively expressed with a certain understatement--almost repressed. That's not what you get here. Technically the performance is superb, but it sounds more like Bloch than it does Elgar. I really wish I liked it more.
I do have a significant quibble with the recording itself. It's not at all rare to have a dedicated microphone on the soloist. It provides some detail and clarity, especially during tutti. But it really shouldn't be used to change overall balance by much. In the recording, there is simply too much cello. When a cellist is louder than a brass section, you should know there's a problem. Both Carter and Elgar--skilled composers--knew what they should expect for overall balance. This isn't the case here. Weilerstein has a wonderful sound, but I could do with it turned down a notch. Let's hope for a remix whenever this is re-released in some future format.
on February 27, 2013
There is good reason that Daniel Barenboim chose Alisa Weilerstein as cellist for the first performance of the Elgar Cello Concerto since his wife, the brilliant Jacqueline DuPre, passed away. Her work is supple, passionate and accurate even when the concerto's intensity tempts so many performers away from its daunting complexities. I have heard her perform the concerto live, and this recording delivers her great virtuosity all but intact to a good sound system. I might add that she also does magic with the Carter, which is so deeply personal that it is almost a character study of the composer himself. She is artist enough to let Carter sing his riveting and profound song.
4 1/2 stars -- and that's no criticism of Weilerstein or Barenboim, for as Ralph Moore says, "Barenboim and the typically accomplished Staatskapelle Berlin take a back seat to their soloist and the recording favours her unnaturally in ensemble - but one must expect that; the sound is otherwise wonderful." I disagree with RM only to the extent that I don't think we have to expect the degree of spotlighting of the solo instrument that we get here. It's a credit to Weilerstein and her technique that even as "in your face" as the soloist is, the effect isn't cloying or overpowering. In fact, her timings for the movements are pretty much the same as in my favorite recording, Heinrich Schiff's 1982 version with Marriner and the Dresden Staatskapelle. The Elgar is a great piece, up there with the Dvorak, and Weilerstein has the measure of its somber beauty. In particular, I was impressed by the handling of the final movement, the longest in the piece, which recapitulates and transforms material from the earlier movements. Weilerstein and Barenboim handle the transitions within the movement beautifully, so that both the movement and the whole concerto leave the listener feeling the organic unity of the piece. Weilerstein's playing of the cantabile parts -- the Adagio, of course -- is warm and wonderful, eloquent without ever descending to sentimentality. She always keeps the music moving forward, and Barenboim is as rhythmically alert as he is tonally attentive, and the Berlin Staatskapelle plays beautifully. The Bruch "Kol Nidrei," which is offered as a "bonus" here (!??*!), is similarly eloquently played.
The odd coupling, which some reviewers don't like, is the Elliott Carter Cello Concerto from 2001. I thought it was marvelous, and it was refreshing to hear its good-humored acerbities after the Elgar. Carter's interest in writing it, according to the program booklet, was to explore the resources of the cello, and he seems to go out of his way to resist the typical lyricism, with the effect that in about half the movements the writing for the cello seems cadenza-like and improvisational, while the orchestra tries to get its oar in by means of various percussive strategies. Weilerstein deploys the whole armory here -- from the lowest reaches of the instrument all the way the up, and the result is invigorating. The two slower sections pit the cello first against a high-lying orchestral shimmer, to beautiful effect (that's the Lento fourth section) and, in the sixth section, marked "Tranquillo," the accompaniment is deep in the woodwinds, with the cello employing an arresting raindrop pizzicato effect to create a lovely aura. The piece falls into seven sections, played without breaks, and is only 22 minutes long -- overall, it has the feel of a scherzo.
So . . . with my reservation about the sound balance only, I would recommend this CD. The playing is fine and the program unusual.
Although I've heard Weilerstein in concert, my attention wasn't really caught until this CD, which introduces to a larger audience a remarkable talent. At age 30, the offspring of a prestigious musical couple (her father was first violinist of the Cleveland quartet), Weilerstein was performing with the Cleveland Orch. at age 13 and became the recipient of a prestigious "genius" grant from the MacArthur Foundation in 2011: Who could ask for a more auspicious entry into the majors? Everything here justifies such high expectations.
It's a two-edged sword for Barenboim to sponsor a charismatic female cellist, all but anointing her as the new du Pre - the press has already flung the title about. Always good at Elgar, barenboim scales down the accompaniment of the Cello Cto. to suit Weilerstein's approach, which doesn't mimic her great predecessor's. Du Pre was uninhibited, rhapsodic, and bursting with passion when she played - or one might say, overwhelmed - this music. Weilerstein manages to be just as captivating in a more restrained way, relying on natural musicality, a lovely tone, and supple phrasing that is probably closer to Elgar's ambiguous emotional world. On the surface, her interpretation may sound a touch underplayed, but having heard most of the recordings made since du Pre's heyday, I find Weilerstein's the most personal and affecting. Decca's close miking exaggerates the cello's prominence in the orchestral mix, but that's a quibble. Everything sounds natural and warm.
The majority of listeners might complain when the program continues with Carter's late Cello Cto., whose idiom could hardly fall farther from Elgar's. Written in 2001 when the composer turned 93, the single-movement work is divided into seven distinct sections with moods contrasting from Maestoso to Tranquillo and Giocoso. In his remarkable late phase Carter softened the thorny, challenging post-Schoenberg style that earned him such a fearsome intellectual reputation in the Fifties. This concerto is quite accessible by any standard except the most conservative - or close-minded - with many passages of quiet beauty and lyricism. The full panoply of cello technique is called upon, and quite often the soloist stands apart from the orchestra as antagonist or more properly, standing its own ground as musical events swirl around it. There are some dissonant outbursts but the prevailing mood is rather like an updated modernist Don Quixote, which many quirky, atmospheric touches. Weilerstein encompasses the technical challenges with posed assurance, and Barenboim, a thorough modernist himself, feasts on the colorful orchestral part. the work ends quite enigmatically on a single pizzicato note from the cello without preparation or warning.
Bruch's somewhat solemnly sentimental Kol Nidrei, a Hebrew chant turned into wordless vocalise for the cello, allows every cellist to sing mournfully, a mode well suited to the instrument. Overdone, the song falls to its knees sobbing. Weilerstein delivers a reading that is a model of restrained eloquence, although in the end, I'm not sure this music offers much beyond local color.
on January 8, 2013
By far one of the best recordings of the year 2012, classical or otherwise, was this recording made by the young American cellist Alisa Weilerstein and conductor Daniel Barenboim of three brilliant works for cello and orchestra.
The best known of these, of course, is the Elgar concerto in E Minor, clearly one of the big war horses of the repertoire, and probably second only to Dvorak's B Minor one in terms of popularity when it comes to cello concertos. This is a work that cuts very close to the bone insofar as Barenboim is concerned, because it was an absolute staple that he conducted along with his late wife, the legendary cellist Jacqueline DuPre, who passed away in 1987 from multiple sclerosis. Barenboim had hardly touched this piece since her passing, but in Weilerstein he found someone who could handle the Elgar with a significant amount of aplomb. No one can replace DuPre's definitive mastery of the work, but Ms. Weilerstein puts her own mark on it here.
The most recent of the three is the one by Elliot Carter, which he composed in 2001 and had premiered in Chicago, with Barenboim conducting the Chicago Symphony, and Yo-Yo Ma as the soloist. It is a hugely contemporary piece, and the way it is handled by Ms. Weilerstein is something to behold, with its fantastic rumblings and the intensive virtuosity required of the soloist. The oldest of the three works in question is "Kol Nidrei", a work for cello and orchestra composed by the Romantic-era German composer Max Bruch in 1881 for cellist Robert Hausmann, and one that Ms. Weilerstein again acquaints herself with quite well.
The Berlin State Orchestra (Staatskapelle Berlin), while it may not have the name appeal of the neighboring Berlin Philharmonic, does benefit from Barenboim being its principal conductor, and the quality and discipline that mark so many of the great orchestras of Europe show up here in spades on this recording, especially in the thornier Carter concerto (Carter passed away in November 2012, just thirty-six days short of what would have been his 104th birthday). And Weilerstein has shown herself to be one of the great contemporary classical musicians of our time with this interesting mixture of three works for her chosen instrument. This is definitely a recording worth having.
on June 12, 2014
I listen to everything from Classical to Hip Hop and I am looking for one thing, true sound. My sound system is nothing fancy just a receiver and some pretty good speakers. I play my music from the iTunes database, so it is from disc to receiver to speakers. Alisa Weilerstein has high quality sound and her presentation brings emotion to my listening. It is the emotion that I feel that I use to measure as great, good, or fair quality. If you like classical music, this album is worth the purchase.