Alisa Weilerstein communes with Bach in Cleveland’s Severance Hall

United StatesUnited States In Focus / Bonus Episode 2: Alisa Weilerstein Plays Bach: Alisa Weilerstein (cello). Performance from Severance Hall, Cleveland, and first streamed 25.2.2021. (MSJ)

Alisa Weilerstein (cello) (c) Roger Mastroianni

Bach – Cello Suites Nos.1-6 BWV 1007-1012

This program comes as a bonus episode to the Cleveland Orchestra’s Adella video concert subscription series. It is a considerable bonus, with two and a half hours of music, introductions and bonus videos with the soloist, Alisa Weilerstein, talking about the music.

The wonderful introduction talks about Weilerstein’s background as a Cleveland native and alumna of the Cleveland Orchestra’s youth ensemble. After some beautiful images of Weilerstein arriving at Severance Hall in the January snow, we see shots of the cellists finding her photo from the youth orchestra; and she takes us back to her high school to show the practice room where she forged her technique.

Recording the Bach solo cello suites is a major occasion for a cellist, and Weilerstein is given an amazing platform for doing so: a poignantly empty Severance Hall, save for the cameras that let us watch her closely as she communes with Bach. These video close-ups remind me somewhat of the experience of watching Yo-Yo Ma perform the six suites at Blossom Music Center in 2018, but with two huge exceptions: instead of a crowd of 10,000 people, here we are effectively alone with the artist, and the cameras are freer to roam and search the player’s expressions.

And expressive Weilerstein is. While there is no overindulgence in modern legato and vibrato, these are rich, full-blooded performances, abetted by the stage lighting – vibrantly blue in the G major Suite, dimmed to blue dusk in the D minor. While her tempos do not, for the most part, tend to extremes, Weilerstein is not afraid to linger and unfold passages that catch her focus. She shows as much life in her bow work as in her fingers, never defaulting into a syrupy flow of tone but instead keeping textures airy and free.

The production describes the performances as ‘recorded live’, though it doesn’t go into detail about the recording date(s). The cellist’s outfits change periodically, coordinated with the stage lighting, and both reflect the moods of the music without being obtrusive. Weilerstein is fiery in the vibrant third suite, with the Severance stage bathed in tawny golden light. The brightness is surprisingly effective in the expansive sarabande, which Weilerstein takes at an unflinchingly broad tempo, emphasizing its solitude. The closing gigue is electric.

The quieter Fourth Suite is met with a bluish-purple glow. Weilerstein plays all the suites from memory, mostly with her eyes shut or only briefly opening them to see some distant horizon. Her sense of speaking through the music is second to none. The introspective Fifth Suite sees her barely lit in a pool of dim light, with the performance of the sarabande traveling to remote regions of desolation. The final suite, the most intricate, is bathed in a reddish-orange autumnal light that matches the joy of the playing.

While it was exciting to be part of the event when Yo-Yo Ma played these suites at Blossom, the intimacy of the experience of sharing Weilerstein’s solitude here is breathtaking. Severance Hall becomes the artist’s temple, where she worships the Shakespearean breadth of Bach and makes the watcher feel the depths of what it is to be human.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

Subscriptions to the Cleveland Orchestra’s Adella streaming app are available at Adella.Live or on their website (click here).

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