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Edward ELGAR (1857-1934) Cello Concerto in E minor, Op.85 (1919) [29:17]
Elliott CARTER (b.1908) Cello Concerto (2001) [22:17]
Max BRUCH (1838-1920) Kol Nidrei, Op. 47 (1880) [10:49]
Alisa Weilerstein (cello),
Staatskapelle Berlin/Daniel Barenboim
rec. live, 2-3, 5 April (Elgar), 15, 18 September 2012 (Carter, Bruch), Philharmonie, Berlin
DECCA 4782735 [62:27]

This recording is the Decca debut album from American cellist Alisa Weilerstein. Some recording it is too, containing a highly desirable performance of Sir Edward Elgar’s much loved Cello Concerto. Weilerstein recorded these three scores at a series of live concerts in 2012. From Rochester, New York State, Weilerstein, born in 1982, made her professional debut aged 13 playing Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations with the Cleveland Orchestra. Weilerstein has been the recipient of several prestigious awards, namely an Avery Fisher Career Grant (2000) and more recently a MacArthur Foundation Fellow (2011). The fact that Weilerstein has played with many of the world’s elite orchestras so early in her career is testimony to her extraordinary talent.
Undoubtedly the principal work here is Elgar’s Cello Concerto a universally admired work that provides numerous challenges to the performer. Written in 1919 this intensely moving score was penned by an Elgar emotionally scarred by the horrors of the Great War. An example of how tastes change was highlighted by music writers in the 1950s holding the view that the Elgar Cello Concerto didn’t have the same public affection as his Violin Concerto; this is certainly not the case today. Probably the principal reason for this escalation in popularity is the legacy of the magnificent and iconic recording by the late Jacqueline du Pré. Du Pré was just twenty when she took her 1712 Davidov Stradivarius cello to the Kingsway Hall, London in 1965 to make that recording with the LSO under Sir John Barbirolli. With the spectre of du Pré’s recording in the background, it was courageous of Weilerstein to embark on this project. She first collaborated with Daniel Barenboim in 2010 with the Berlin Philharmonic at the orchestra’s annual Europa-Konzert in the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford. As the former husband of Jacqueline du Pré, Barenboim had conducted a live recording of the work with his wife in 1970 with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Armed with his deep knowledge of the score Barenboim assisted Weilerstein in preparing this performance. From the age of seven she had played and later studied all of du Pré’s recordings of the Elgar Cello Concerto. It comes as no surprise that this intensely emotional live account conveys a similar depth of searching expression. Right from the opening bars of the first movement, Weilerstein’s boldly passionate approach feels as if she is living the music rather than just playing it. In the short Lento - Allegro molto I was struck by the scurrying figures that contrast so starkly with the overall air of nobility. The poignantly lyrical Adagio is performed with a deep heart-rending pathos that feels entirely convincing. With playing that combines exuberance and nobility, the Finale grips the listener from start to highly satisfying finish. Barenboim’s Berlin players provide a rich and shadowy backdrop.
Prior to the recording of Elliot Carter’s Cello Concerto Weilerstein had met the American composer then aged 103 to discuss and try out aspects of the seven section score. The contrasting textures of Carter’s frequently stark and jagged sound-world are interpreted with ample vigour and solid commitment.
Max Bruch although a German Protestant based his Kol Nidrei (1880) an Adagio for cello and orchestra on a solemn Jewish melody chanted during the service of Atonement on the eve of Yom Kippur. Weilerstein, taken things at a measured pace, brings out the work’s hauntingly evocative and somewhat shadowy mood.
The soloist’s English-made William Forster cello (1790) emits a splendidly rich, burnished timbre that feels eminently suited to the Elgar. The music has been fairly closely recorded with a highly agreeable cool and clear sound. I realise that the Elgar and Bruch coupled with the often rugged modernism of Elliot Carter may prove off-putting for some. I rather like a combination of the popular and accessible with the more challenging and neglected but the Carter did feel rather incongruous in this company. Nevertheless this is well worth obtaining for the Elgar Cello Concerto alone.
Weilerstein is a sensational cellist of high emotional temperament and her live Elgar is quite stunningly played. As I expected from such an excellent orchestra, the support from the Staatskapelle Berlin and Barenboim is beyond reproach.
Michael Cookson