A Memorable Recital by Alisa Weilerstein and Inon Barnatan

17/12/2013

 Debussy, Schubert, Shostakovich, Rachmaninov: Alisa Weilerstein (cello), Inon Barnatan (piano), Wigmore Hall, London, 16.12.2013 (RB)

Debussy – Cello Sonata in D minor (1915)
Schubert – Fantasy D934 (1827) (arr. Weilerstein/Barnatan)
Shostakovich – 7 Preludes from Lera Auerbach’s arrangement of the Piano
Preludes(1932-33)
Rachmaninov – Cello Sonata in G minor Op 19 (1901)

The Wigmore Hall was packed for this recital by Weilerstein and Barnatan, both of whom have recently released critically acclaimed recordings.  Weilerstein recorded the Elgar Cello Concerto with Barenboim to great acclaim (review) while Barnatan’s Schubert (review) has drawn comparisons with Schnabel. Weilerstein is a very glamorous presence on stage with her designer dress and long flowing hair while Barnatan seemed a more buttoned up figure and was reading from a natty electronic I-Pad score.

They opened with Debussy’s Cello Sonata which was written in 1915 towards the end of the composer’s life.  The work is notable for its concision and use of 18th Century forms although everything is refracted through Debussy’s unique musical language.  I loved the declamatory opening from Barnatan while Weilerstein seemed to create a late Romantic glow with her long sinuous phrases in the opening movement.  Debussy originally wanted to entitle the sonata Pierrot fâché avec la lune (‘Pierrot angry with the moon’) and both performers succeeded in capturing this portrait in the second movement with its shifting textures and sonorities – there is a lot of pizzicato and spiccato.   Both performers used a wide palette of tone colours in the finale and did an excellent job in handling the changes of tempo and atmosphere.  Occasionally, some sections of the work came across as little studied – particularly at the beginning of the second movement – and I would have welcomed a greater elasticity and sense of natural flow in some of the phrasing but it was a strong performance.

From Debussy we moved to late Schubert with the latter’s one-movement Fantasy which was originally written for violin and piano.  There are four distinct sections in the work including a bravura set of variations in the middle on a Schubert song which is a setting the Rückert poem Sei mir gegrüsst.  This performance by Weilerstein and Barnatan was stunning and is the sort of thing that makes these Wigmore Hall recitals so special.  Weilerstein’s handling of the opening melody was absolutely gorgeous, restrained and evocative, and set against beautifully controlled tremolos and arabesques from Barnatan.  The Allegretto section had a delightful Viennese charm with Barnatan in particular doing a splendid job in bringing out the whimsy and enchanting nature of the piece.  Both performers were wonderfully responsive to the vocal nature of the writing in the Rückert setting while the variations were played with increasing exuberance and joie de vivre.  The final section was wonderfully characterised with the increasing high spirits banishing the dark shadows and triumphing over adversity.  Both performers gave us increasingly dazzling passage work while the coda was a tour de force.

The second half opened with Lera Aurerbach’s arrangements of seven of Shostakovich’s Op 34 Preludes.  The C major Prelude had a wonderful feeling of space while the B minor was biting and trenchant with Weilerstein giving us some impressive double stopping.  The A major almost sounded like a Bach Sarabande while the C sharp minor was brooding and nostalgic with Weilerstein’s dark colouring giving just the right tinge of Russian melancholy.  I was impressed with Barnatan’s rhythmic incisiveness in the D flat while the A flat had a lovely warm luminous glow.  The D minor is sardonic and spiky and there was excellent interplay between the two performers.

The concert concluded with Rachmaninov’s G minor Sonata for Piano and Cello – the pianist has to negotiate some highly virtuosic piano writing in this piece and there is a need to guard against it sounding like a piano sonata with cello obbligato.  The performers had clearly thought very carefully about balance and Barnatan did a superb job in ensuring the dense piano textures did not drown out Weilerstein.  I loved the freedom with which Weilerstein played the long cello lines in the opening movement while Barnatan evoked rich harmonies and tone colours in the swirling piano textures.  The scherzo was rhythmically taut with darting shadows while the trio section in the major key had an easy lyricism with Weilerstein bring out the yearning quality in the vocal line.  There is a flashy cadenza in the middle which Barnatan handled with aplomb.  Barnatan gave us some exquisite colouring at the opening of the Andante while the movement as a whole had lovely Romantic bloom – this is the Rachmaninov of the Second Piano Concerto.  In the finale I was struck by the increasing freedom of Weilerstein’s phrasing – she almost seemed to physically inhabit the music – and by her soulful, sensual tone while Barnatan’s handling of the virtuoso pyrotechnics was exhilarating.

Fabulous playing from both performers – I hope their recording company have the good sense to ask them to commit these interpretations to disc.

Robert Beattie

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