Classical CD Reviews

ELGAR: Cello Concerto; CARTER: Cello Concerto; BRUCH: Kol Nidre – Alisa Weilerstein, c. – Staatskapelle Berlin/ Daniel Barenboim – Decca

Cellist Alisa Weilerstein reveals the joy in Eliot Carter’s complex Cello Concerto and her sublime Elgar Cello Concerto is a performance for the ages.

Published on November 16, 2012

ELGAR: Cello Concerto; CARTER: Cello Concerto; BRUCH: Kol Nidre – Alisa Weilerstein, c. – Staatskapelle Berlin/Daniel Barenboim – Decca B00175592-02, 62:27 *****:

I received this CD on the same day that Elliot Carter (1908-2012) died at age 103. Imagine hearing the American premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring at age 16, and you’ll get a sense of what it means to live that long. Even more amazing is that he composed until the very end of his life.  He received almost every accolade a composer could – two Pulitzer Prizes, National Medal of Arts, and many others. So his music demands to be heard, but that doesn’t mean that his music is liked by many in the classical music public. Carter’s wry retort: “As a young man, I harbored the populist idea of writing for the public, he said, “I learned that the public didn’t care. So I decided to write for myself. Since then, people have gotten interested.” The apparent lack of comprehensible melody and complex and constantly changing rhythms make his music hard to understand. Carter acknowledged this, describing his works as “music that asks to be listened to in a concentrated way, and listened to with a great deal of attention.”

After not being satisfied with his early neo-Classical and neo-Romantic compositions, in 1951 he penned his First String Quartet, an acerbic work that used what he has described as metric modulation, where each instrument uses an independent rhythm, creating a dissonant thicket of melodic strands that the mind has difficulty in unraveling into musical sense. His later works, however, while maintaining their complexity, took on a tonal softness that began to endear him to experienced classical music listeners. When faced with audience appreciation at the 2008 Festival of Contemporary Music at the Tanglewood Music Center, devoted to a retrospective of Carter’s works, he admitted, “It’s a little bit frightening, because I’m not used to being appreciated, he said, “So, when I think I am, I think I’ve made a mistake.”

The Cello Concerto (2001) belongs in Carter’s late period. It’s a 22 minute work in one movement whose core is a musical and emotionally shifting dialogue between cello and orchestra. A solo cello plunges the listener into a startling musical world, with orchestral chords punctuating the drama. A stormy, passionate Allegro is followed by delightfully witty Giocoso. A darkly lyrical Lento, with chattering woodwinds, preceeds a deeply emotional Maestoso. An meditative Tranquillo was inspired by Carter’s experience in a Japanese garden, hearing water drops around him. The spell is broken by a Scherzo that ends the work with hushed pizzicatos. At the conclusion cellist Alicia Weilerstein comments, “I feel like an actor who has had their big dramatic moment and then walks off the stage still speaking, breaking off mid-sentence.” She plays brilliantly and the close sound doesn’t miss a note. Despite its challenges, Carter’s sheer joy and love of music shines through this amazing work. Anyone curious about significant music being written in our time will not be disappointed. And, like me, maybe some will be led to exploring further works of one of America’s great composers.

Like the Carter Concerto, Elgar’s Cello Concerto (1918-19), his final masterpiece, starts with the solo cello, but the similarity ends there. This is a late Romantic work, written after the end of World War I, with somber and beautiful melodies that has made it one of the most performed and popular twentieth century cello concertos. Weilerstein admits to obsessively listening to Jacqueline Du Pre’s iconic recording (1965) as a seven year old. Conductor Barenboim was Du Pre’s husband and musical colleague. The Concerto is a soulful lament for a world destroyed by devastation, and the finale to Elgar’s patrician life. Especially notable is Weilerstein’s brilliant cadenzas in the second movement. In the emotional center of the work, the Adagio, she performs with Mahleresque intensity – simply marvellous. She romps through the finale with earnestness and heartfelt purpose, and Barenboim adds his own expressive touches. This is playing of incredible vulnerability and sadness, devastating at times, yet passionately resplendent.

Bruch’s Kol Nidre, a rhapsodic and prayerful work celebrating Yom Kippur, is much more than a bonus. Weilerstein invests her soul in a performance that reaches beyond reverent, to the sublime. Although there is a bit too much focus on the cello that sometimes places the orchestra in the background, this is a great recording to be treasured. Don’t miss it!

—Robert Moon




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