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Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
Cello Concerto No. 2 in D major (1783) [21:30]
Cello Concerto No. 1 in C major (1761) [22:49]
Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)
Verklärte Nacht (1899, first string orchestra version of 1917, revised 1943) [28:27]
Alisa Weilerstein (cello)
Trondheim Soloists
rec. 2018, Selbu Kirke, Trondheim, Norway
PENTATONE SACD PTC5186717 [73:00]

In May this year, during Dresdner Musikfestspiele 2018, I was delighted to report from a performance by great American cellist Alisa Weilerstein at Großen Garten as part of the Cellomania series. Weilerstein was not playing one of the great Romantic concertos she is so celebrated for, but J. S. Bach’s fifth cello suite. She gave a stunning performance that brought enthusiastic clapping and cheering from the audience. Now I am relishing the opportunity of hearing the album Transfigured Night. It brings together Haydn and Schoenberg, two composers closely associated with Vienna.

This is Weilerstein’s first collaboration in her new role as artistic partner of Trondheim Soloists, Norway’s celebrated string orchestra. The title of the album refers to Schoenberg’s early Verklärte Nacht, an established work of the Second Viennese School. Weilerstein strongly identifies with the music of Vienna. Her grandparents fled the city in 1938 just like Schoenberg had done four years earlier. For the other two works as soloist, Weilerstein performs music of the First Viennese School: both of Haydn’s cello concertos.

Verklärte Nacht was originally written as a string sextet in 1899. Schoenberg’s inspiration was Richard Dehmel’s dark poem (1896) of the same title – and his heightened emotions upon meeting Mathilde von Zemlinsky, later to be his wife. Another stimulus was said to be Brahms, who had twice employed the combination of pairs of violins, violas and cellos in his string sextets. According to musicologist Malcolm Hayes it is “a work exploring dangerous new harmonic territory. When Zemlinsky submitted the score for performance in Vienna it was rejected on the grounds of dangerously extreme chromaticism.”

Schoenberg adapted Verklärte Nacht for string orchestra in 1917, and revised it in 1943; the latter version is played here. Cast in a single movement, the work has five distinct sections which relate to the five stanzas of Dehmel’s poem. Trondheim Soloists and concertmaster Geir Inge Lotsberg show commitment throughout. The vigorously alive playing evinces a remarkable blend of expression, tension and precision. Although splendidly penetrating, the Trondheim account does not quite have the majesty that Herbert von Karajan communicates on his celebrated 1974 recording with Berliner Philharmoniker on Deutsche Grammophon.

Only three months ago I reported from another Cellomania concert at Dresdner Musikfestspiele 2018. It was satisfying to hear cellists Johannes Moser and Daniel Müller-Schott each play one of Haydn’s cello concertos at Martin Luther Kirche. On this recording, Alisa Weilerstein plays both concertos. Cello Concerto No. 1 in C major was thought to be written in the early 1760s for Haydn’s long-time friend Joseph Franz Weigl, principal cellist of Prince Nicolaus Esterházy’s Orchestra. It was considered lost until 1961 when musicologist Oldřich Pulkert unearthed a copy of the score in Prague. Authenticity of the score has been questioned, although it is now generally thought to be one of the two Haydn cello concertos considered authentic. Weilerstein displays a lively, rather animated character which made a fascinating proposition when added to the rich, mellow sound from her cello, a 1723 Montagnana. She adopts fairly wide dynamics, and is most comfortable playing very softly. I relish her bold and determined playing of the Finale: Allegro molto taken at a Presto-like speed.

In 1783 Haydn composed his Cello Concerto No. 2 in D major for cellist Antonín Kraft, a member of Esterházy Orchestra. As with the C major concerto, there was doubt over its authenticity as a Haydn piece. There were suggestions that it was Kraft’s own work. The concerto is now deemed authentic after Haydn’s autographed score was unearthed in 1951. Weilerstein tackles the technical challenges with astonishing virtuosity and the assured approach one has come to expect. My highlight is the Adagio where the totally involved Weilerstein creates a near-spiritual quality.

In both concertos, the Trondheim Soloists sound magnificent in complete sympathy with the soloist. On this hybrid SACD recorded at Selbu Kirke, Trondheim, the sound team has provided cool, clear sound, although ideally for my taste I would want Weilerstein’s cello slightly further forward in the balance. These performances are hard to fault. The playing is superbly controlled and richly coloured. In Haydn’s pair of cello concertos Weilerstein’s accounts are as exceptional as any I know.

Michael Cookson



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