Elgar & Carter Cello Concertos
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The much-anticipated album from the brilliant young American cellist marks one of the most exciting Decca Classics debuts in many years.
Doubly exciting is the participation of conductor Daniel Barenboim a fervent supporter of Alisa Weilersteins extraordinary talent since their 2010 Europa Concert in Oxford, in which Alisa Weilerstein gave a searing account of the Elgar Concerto.
Alisa Weilerstein is the first cellist for many years to play the Elgar Concerto with Daniel Barenboim, and his decision to record it with her is a major statement.
Elgars Concerto is brought together with a contemporary masterpiece Alisa Weilersteins homage to the doyen of American composers, centenarian Elliott Carter.
Already feted as one of todays top international soloists, Alisa Weilersteins career recently reached new critical heights, following the award of a Genius Grant by the MacArthur Foundation. In the citation it was stated: Alisa Weilerstein is a young cellist whose emotionally resonant performances of both traditional and contemporary music have earned her international recognition . . . a consummate performer, combining technical precision with impassioned musicianship.
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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.
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.