Sunday, March 30, 2014

Review: Weilerstein & Barnatan

March 29, Virginia Commonwealth University

Cellist Alisa Weilerstein and pianist Inon Barnatan, who spend much of their time pursuing flourishing solo careers, proved to be sensitive and attentive duo partners as they performed in a Rennolds Chamber Concerts program at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Earlier in the day, Weilerstein conducted a master class during Cellopaloosa VI, VCU’s annual instructional event for student and avocational cellists.

In the evening concert, two standards of the cello-piano repertory, the sonatas of Debussy and Rachmaninoff, bracketed adaptations of works originally for other instrumentation: Schubert’s Fantasy in C major, D. 934, the composer’s greatest work for violin and piano; and Lera Auerbach’s arrangements of seven of the Op. 34 piano preludes of Shostakovich.

The Rachmaninoff sonata brought out the best of Weilerstein’s and Barnatan’s musicianship. The piece was a perfect vehicle for the cellist’s robust tone and rich lyricism, and for the pianist’s bright, assertive virtuosity. Barnatan was especially effective in the sonata’s dramatic scherzo, with its echoes of Schubert’s “Erlkönig,” while Weilerstein’s singing lines propelled the andante. An encore of that slow movement delved even more deeply into its dark lyricism.

The Debussy was less successful. One of the composer’s late works, written in 1915, the piece is more abstract than evocative, and calls for a French-style string tone – thinner and more tightly focused than that commonly produced by cellists from other nationalities and performance traditions. The warmly declarative style of Weilerstein and Barnatan was, literally, foreign to this music.

The Schubert fantasy, heard here in a cello-and-piano transcription by Weilerstein and Barnatan, is adaptable to lower strings (or, for that matter, to alto winds such as clarinet or English horn), just as the composer’s Lieder can be sung by voices of different register.

The fantasy concludes in a set of variations on the Lied “Sei mir gegrüsst,” and, not surprisingly, those variations provided the best outlet for Weilerstein’s singing tone, plus fast and fiery double-stopping in the coda to show off her virtuosity. Barnatan’s accompaniment sounded rather hard-edged – unintentionally so, perhaps, given the appearance of a piano technician just after the performance; but usefully, too, as the bright, almost brittle, piano tone left enough “air” for the cello to be heard more clearly.

Auerbach’s adaptations of the Shostakovich preludes do not alter the composer’s musical language, but italicize inflections and allusions that were more subtle in the original piano versions. The Prelude No. 10, for example, takes on a more romantically lyrical tone, while the Prelude No. 15 becomes a more fully fleshed-out waltz but loses some of its ironic wit. Weilerstein and Barnatan played the set with character and verve.