Weilerstein Gains Cello’s Top Rung With Shostakovich

Prom 50 alisa weilerstein dvorak czech philharmonic
Cellist Alisa Weilerstein, seen here performing at the Proms, has become an outstanding soloist.

Shostakovich: Cello Concerto No. 1 in E-flat major, Op. 107. Cello Concerto No. 2 in G major, Op. 126. Alisa Weilerstein, cello. Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Pablo Heras-Casado. Decca 483 0835. Total Time: 60:43.

By Paul E. Robinson

DIGITAL REVIEW — It has always been extremely difficult for a young cellist to make a career as a soloist. There are simply too few major works for cello and orchestra, and when a solo opportunity arises, it is often given to the orchestra’s principal cellist. That said, 34-year-old Alisa Weilerstein is now demonstrating that even rules for young cellists are made to be broken. A bona fide world-class soloist, with this fine new recording on a major label, Weilerstein can fairly claim to be the most outstanding cellist to emerge in America since Yo-Yo Ma.

weilersteinSoviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich wrote both of his cello concertos for the great 20thcentury Russian cellist, Mstislav Rostropovich (1927-2007). Weilerstein had the opportunity to study these pieces with Rostropovich at an early age, and her performance of each one on this CD is technically superb and deeply communicative.

The Shostakovich Cello Concerto No. 1 is performed more often than No. 2, and it is easy to see why. The First Concerto, composed in 1959, is by turns agitated and somber, and in the last movement very exciting, even at times near-hysterical. By contrast, the Second Concerto, composed in 1966, is gloomy in the extreme. This is not surprising, considering the composer was seriously ill when he wrote it. The ending of the concerto suggests a life cut short suddenly, after an exhausting struggle.

I have a live recording of the Cello Concerto No. 1 from 2006 with Weilerstein and the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Christoph Eschenbach — a fine performance by any standard. However, in this new recording with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Weilerstein and conductor Pablo Heras-Casado take the first movement just a little faster, and in so doing add significantly, and successfully, to the urgency of the music.

Overall, Weilerstein shows that she is now totally inside the piece. The work could be a textbook example of how to write a cello concerto; the orchestra never covers the soloist but still manages to be a forceful partner. The roles played by the solo horn in the first movement, the celesta in the second movement, and the clarinet in the fourth movement are especially significant. Heras-Casado gets fully committed performances from the Bavarian orchestra and is clearly on the same wavelength as his soloist. Weilerstein’s intensity never lets up, and she makes every note count in the long cadenza.  

Cello Concerto No. 2 uses a substantially larger orchestra. A second horn has been added, and this pair of horns is used primarily for a series of Brittenesque fanfares which open the third movement Allegretto. But it is mainly the expanded percussion section that gets our attention, foreshadowing the prolific use of these instruments in Shostakovitch’s Symphony No. 14. Here, as in that symphony, tambourine, wood block, snare drum, bass drum, tom-tom, timpani, and xylophone all have their moments.

In order to fully appreciate this music, one must understand that the choice of a particular instrument or combination of instruments at any given moment was always a critical matter for Shostakovich. Conductor Kurt Sanderling worked with Shostakovich on many occasions and found him to be flexible in matters of tempo and expression, “but no one was allowed to change the instrumentation. That would have been a sin.”

Weilerstein’s performance of the Second Concerto is magnificent. She manages the fearsome technical demands with no obvious strain and powerfully conveys the sense of struggling against one’s fate before succumbing to the inevitable. Again, Heras-Casado and his players do their part, going all out in the massive orchestral tutti in the final movement. This long, complex, and richly expressive movement has never sounded more coherent or lingered in the memory so long afterwards. The recording quality is outstanding.

Alisa Weilerstein will be performing the Shostakovich Cello Concerto No. 1 often this season with Eschenbach and the National Symphony in Washington at the Kennedy Center  (March 9, 10 and 12) and with the same musicians at the Moscow Rouse Phaethon a few weeks later (March 29-30).  She is that rare solo artist who loves to play chamber music and clears time in her busy schedule to do it. She is a regular member of Geoff Nuttall’s Chamber Music series at Spoleto Festival USA, where I heard her in action earlier in 2016, and she will soon embark on a U.S. tour with pianist Inon Barnatan and Anthony McGill, principal clarinet of the New York Philharmonic.

Paul E. Robinson is a Canadian conductor and broadcaster and the author of four books on conductors. He writes regularly about music for www.theartoftheconductor.comwww.musicaltoronto.org, and www.myscena.org.