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 Recording of the Week  Elgar & Carter from Alisa Weilerstein

I suppose it’s inevitable that any female cellist choosing to record the Elgar concerto will be compared to Jacqueline du Pré; I can think of few other pieces that have come to be defined to such an extent by a single recording, in this case her legendary EMI account with Sir John Barbirolli and the London Symphony Orchestra. So it was with great interest that I listened to a new disc from the American cellist, Alisa Weilerstein, with Daniel Barenboim conducting the Staatskapelle Berlin. Weilerstein herself is certainly aware of this weight of expectation, commenting: “At one time I listened to [du Pré’s] recording almost as a daily ritual … But when I 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.”

Alisa Weilerstein & Elliott Carter
Alisa Weilerstein & Elliott Carter

This determination is apparent from the very beginning: the opening chords sound purposeful, assertive, almost aggressive, with plenty of attack on the sforzandos. This is definitely in keeping with Barenboim’s interpretation as a whole: as you might expect from a German orchestra and a conductor renowned for his Wagner and Bruckner, the sound in places is much weightier than perhaps one might assume for Elgar. The two moments in the first movement where the cellist ascends a semiquaver scale to a high E natural are drawn out more than usual, which certainly adds to the drama, and there were passages in the last movement where the violas almost had me convinced that this was a long-lost concerto by Brahms!

It was in the third movement that the difference between Weilerstein and du Pré most struck me; Weilerstein’s reading seems to me not quite as immediately passionate, more introverted and tender. That’s certainly not a criticism, though: in fact the relative stillness and calm was a perfect contrast to the stormy final movement. Technically Weilerstein is flawless throughout, especially in the dazzling semiquavers and fiendish position shifts in the second movement, all despatched with aplomb.

Also on the disc is the Cello Concerto by the American composer Elliott Carter, who sadly died last year at the grand old age of 103. I must admit I didn’t already know this piece, but what a fine work it is! Carter’s ear for sonorities and harmonies is endlessly inventive, but what surprised me was how lyrical the work is: he really enables Weilerstein to show off the cello’s capacity for beautiful, elegiac phrases. Perhaps the best example of this is an extraordinary passage in the Tranquillo section, where serene, flowing lines for cello and contrabass clarinet are interrupted by several pizzicato “plops”. Carter explained that this was inspired by a visit to the moss garden in Kyoto, Japan: “it has many streams of water to keep the moss alive, and it had little bamboo tubes, and they would fill up, and when they were filled they would turn over and there would be a loud snap, and I put that into the concerto.”

Of course there are also moments of harshness and brutality, especially at the very opening of the piece, where the cello is interrupted by thundering, pounding chords from the full orchestra, but in my opinion the central Lento section in particular contains some of Carter’s most ravishing writing. It’s a piece that I think is definitely worth exploring if you don’t already know it.

If that hasn’t quite persuaded you yet, then we have two video clips on our site - a short excerpt of Weilerstein and Barenboim performing the Elgar in concert, and also a video of Weilerstein visiting Carter at his home, discussing the concerto and playing bits of it to him. It turned out to be Carter’s final recorded interview, and hearing him talk about his piece is really rather touching, so do try and find the time to watch it if you can. Hopefully it will whet your appetite to hear the whole piece on this disc!

Elgar & Carter: Cello Concertos

Alisa Weilerstein (cello), Staatskapelle Berlin, Daniel Barenboim

Available Formats: CD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC