Cellist Weilerstein offers playing of open-hearted intensity

Sun Oct 28, 2012 at 11:07 pm

By Wynne Delacoma

In terms of artistry, American cellist Alisa Weilerstein, who offered a bracing recital Sunday afternoon at Symphony Center with pianist Inon Barnatan, is a double threat. She has technique to spare, whether tearing through the sharp, stuttering rhythms that close Benjamin Britten’s Cello Sonata in C Major, Op 65, or allowing the final, hushed note of Chopin’s G Minor Cello Sonata, also an Op. 65, to float into infinite space.

But Weilerstein, who made an impressive Chicago Symphony Orchestra debut during the orchestra’s Dvorak Festival in spring 2009, also has a gift for programming. Sunday’s concert opened in traditional enough fashion, with Beethoven’s Cello Sonata No. 2 in G Minor, Op. 5, No. 2. But it was followed by Britten’s prickly sonata, written in 1961 at the request of famed Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. After intermission came the Suite Italienne, an arrangement for cello and piano that Stravinsky made of dances from his 1920 ballet Pulcinella, and the Chopin sonata. For an encore Weilerstein and Barnatan performed the meditative third movement of Rachmaninoff’s Cello Sonata. The afternoon was a lively, thoughtful mix of accessible yet pungent 20th century music and more classical and romantic styles.

The common denominator throughout the afternoon was the passion that both cellist and pianist displayed for the music at hand. Last year Weilerstein won a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, and Sunday’s concert clearly revealed what the foundation called her “emotionally resonant performances of both traditional and contemporary music.” The intensity that Weilerstein and Barnatan brought to every work was both open-hearted and deep.

In the first pages of Beethoven’s sonata, they established a sense of profound intimacy. With long strokes of her bow, Weilerstein launched a series of dark, single notes that nestled against the simple, dappled song of Barnatan’s piano. Even in the sonata’s more serene sections, a wistful memory of an initial, shared sorrow lingered.

The communication between cello and piano was particularly electric in the off-kilter harmonies and surprising turns of phrase in the Britten sonata. In the third movement march, they pushed ahead with mechanical precision. But we never felt that either performer was striving merely for effect. They appeared equally engrossed by Beethoven’s earthy folk dances and Stravinsky’s elegant, neoclassical minuets.

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