A Superb Recital from Alisa Weilerstein and Inon Barnatan

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven, Barber, Britten: Alisa Weilerstein (cello), Inon Barnatan (piano), Wigmore Hall, London, 7.3.2017. (RB)

Beethoven – Cello Sonata in C Op.102 No.1; Cello Sonata in D Op.102 No.2
Barber – Cello Sonata Op.6
Britten – Cello Sonata in C Op.65

Alisa Weilerstein and Inon Barnatan both seem to be forging impressive international careers as concert soloists.  It was good to see the two of them back in the Wigmore Hall in this programme of late Beethoven interspersed with 20th century masterworks.

The programme opened with the first of Beethoven’s late cello sonatas which was written in 1815 for the cellist, Joseph Linke.  This work, together with its companion piece in D major, marks the start of Beethoven’s third creative period.  Weilerstein and Barnatan opened in a simple and unaffected way and there was pleasing sense of Classical elegance and equipoise between the two players.  This was in sharp contrast to the ensuing Allegro vivace which was powerful and dramatic and coursed with rhythmic energy.  There was a muscularity and robustness about the playing which I really enjoyed and it was good to see both players paying such close attention to Beethoven’s dynamic markings.  In the second movement the slow introduction had an improvisatory quality and the playing sounded completely fresh and spontaneous.  The second Allegro vivace was full of cheeky Haydnesque wit and mischievous fun and it was delightfully characterised by both players.  The exchanges were tightly coordinated and Barnatan’s handling of Beethoven’s scampering passagework was exceptionally fine.

Barber’s Cello Sonata was written in 1932 when the composer was still a student at the Curtis Institute of Music.  The work is in three movements and the second movement combines an Adagio with a scherzo.  Weilerstein produced a richer, fuller sound than we had heard hitherto in the opening Allegro ma non troppo and the movement had a restless, sometimes explosive energy.  The lyrical second subject became a heartfelt song which Weilerstein invested with a wonderful sense of yearning.  The second movement produced some of the best playing of the entire concert.  Weilerstein’s highly expressive handling of the song-like Adagio was gorgeous and I loved the way in which she allowed the sound to open up towards the end of the movement, creating a sense of rapture.  The elfin, quicksilver exchanges between the two players in the central scherzo were superb.  There was some highly tempestuous playing from Barnatan in the finale and the movement as a whole had a brutal, uncompromising quality which is what this music requires.  I was not entirely convinced that the two players successfully synthesised all the disparate elements in this movement but there was some very fine and highly virtuosic playing nonetheless.

The second half opened with Beethoven’s D major Cello Sonata in which the composer continued to push the boundaries of conventional musical language.  In the programme notes Gerald Larner made the interesting point that Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Brahms all appeared reluctant to include full slow movements in their cello sonatas.  The D major Sonata is one of only two by these three composers with a true slow movement.  Weilerstein and Barnatan gave a brisk and businesslike account of the opening Allegro con brio and I enjoyed the zest they brought to the music and the spirited nature of the exchanges.  Weilerstein brought an eloquence and nobility to the sombre melody which opened the Adagio slow movement.  The ensuing exchanges and Barnatan’s perfectly weighted chords captured the depth of the music without sacrificing any of the lyricism.  The transition to A major was magical and Barnatan allowed the song-like melody to blossom beautifully while Weilerstein provided a perfectly blended counterpoint.  The last movement is one of the first of Beethoven’s late fugal finales and it received a glorious performance here.  Both performers worked as one to ensure the lines were clearly delineated and the fugue was full of dramatic incident as the performers moved from the dance-like opening to increasingly remote keys and knotty discords.

The final work on the programme was Britten’s Cello Sonata in C which the composer wrote for the redoubtable Mstislav Rostropovich.  Britten first met Slava at the Royal Festival Hall in September 1960 when the latter was performing Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto.  Rostropovich pleaded with Britten to write a new work for him and the composer duly obliged with this five movement sonata.  The opening movement, entitled Dialogo, is a somewhat fragmented piece in which tiny phrases are passed between the performers.  Weilerstein and Barnatan produced a tightly coordinated performance and captured the distinctive English character of the piece.  The scherzo – a study in pizzicato inspired by Bartók – produced light nimble interplay between the two performers and some exceptionally fine soft playing.  Weilerstein brought a rapt intensity to the central Elegia and the build-up throughout the movement was well calibrated.  The spirit of Shostakovich hovers over the Marcia fourth movement and Barnatan responded with a parade of grotesque effects while Weilerstein produced disturbing shrieks in higher tessitura.  The Moto Perpetuo finale was dispatched with virtuoso aplomb and both performers raced to the finish where climactic double octaves brought the work to a thrilling conclusion.

Superb playing once again from Weilerstein and Barnatan.  The audience responded with rapturous applause and the duo returned to the stage one final time to perform the slow movement from Rachmaninov’s Cello Sonata as an encore.

Robert Beattie                

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