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Transfigured Night
Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
Cello Concerto No.2 in D, Hob.VIIb/2 (1783) [22:49]
Cello Concerto No.1 in C, Hob.VIIb/1 (1761) [21:35]
Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)
Verklärte Nacht, Op.4 (first string orchestra version, revision 1943) [28:27]
Trondheim Soloists/Alisa Weilerstein (cello)
rec. Selbu Kirke, Trondheim, Norway, April 2018. DSD.
Booklet includes Dehmel poem Verklärte Nacht.
PENTATONE PTC5186717 SACD [73:00]

Haydn and Schoenberg were both associated with Vienna, but that’s about the only connection that I can muster, other than the quality of these recordings and the fact that Alisa Weilerstein has a track record of making two very disparate composers work together. Her award-winning recording of the Elgar and Elliott Carter cello concertos with Bruch’s Kol Nidrei is a case in point (Decca 4782735 – review review).

When Haydn’s C-major concerto was rediscovered in the 1960s, recorded by Supraphon and briefly available on the Classics for Pleasure label at budget price (CFP197), the new work, with Alois Klíma as soloist, coupled with the Boccherini/Grützmacher B-flat concerto gave us about the average playing time of a 12" LP, at 44 minutes (SUAST50495 – rec.1962; available as an inexpensive mp3 download from Amazon UK or even less expensively in mp3 or lossless from Ignore the fact that both downloads say that the Haydn is in C-sharp; it’s in C). Now Pentatone give us both Haydn concertos together with Verklärte Nacht; much more music, in very fine performances, and costing less in real terms than even the Supraphon or CFP releases, though both were inexpensive for their time.

Even after all these years, the Klíma is still a good choice for the Concerto in C. He may not have the virtuosity of Weilerstein or Steven Isserlis (Hyperion CDA68162); he opens with the awful Grützmacher hotch-potch of the Boccherini1, and the recording, though it has worn well, cannot match more recent albums, but I still enjoy hearing his perky performance, and not just for reasons of sentiment. This premiere recording persuaded me that the C-major was, if anything, even more enjoyable than the D-major.

The second recording to persuade me of the worth of the C-major came from Maurice Gendron and Raymond Leppard on a Philips LP, with the genuine Boccherini Concerto in G, the work from which Grützmacher stole the slow movement for the B-flat arrangement. The CD reissue on Philips Classical Favourites 422481-2 hangs on by its fingertips: I can find it only from ArkivMusic, with Amazon UK offering a few second-hand2. It sounds a little dry, but it deserves to be reissued again in more available form. Gendron’s only slightly less recommendable older recording of the D-major, with the original, non-Grützmacher score of the B-flat Boccherini, directed by Pablo Casals, can be found as an inexpensive download.

Another recording of the two Haydn concertos which I enjoyed enough to make it my benchmark among modern versions, before Isserlis arrived on the scene, comes from Antonio Meneses, like Isserlis and Weilerstein as soloist and director, of the Northern Sinfonia (Avie AV2176, with Pereira Cello Concerto – review).

In all three movements Weilerstein is a little faster than Klíma and much faster, especially in the outer movements, than Meneses or Isserlis, both of whom are soloist and conductor in both Haydn concertos, the latter with CPE Bach, or Gendron and Leppard in the C-major. The same is true by comparison with Meneses and Isserlis in the Concerto in D. I see that, although I promised a full review of the Isserlis in Autumn 2017/3, I never got round to it, but my brief recommendation there stands, including the fact that I never felt that Isserlis could be accused of dawdling at any point. It was only when I looked at the figures that I became at all aware of the timings, perhaps as a result of Isserlis’s sheer virtuosity.

Maybe in the future Weilerstein will have the opportunity, as Isserlis did, to re-record these concertos and add mature thought to youthful virtuosity. Meanwhile, I’m perfectly happy with the youthful virtuosity, not least in the dash and vigour of the closing movement of the C-major concerto, despite which nothing in these performances seems at all rushed.

The chosen cadenzas are not specified, but they sound appropriate, unlike the unstylish ones chosen by Rostropovich on his otherwise classic 1975 recording with the ASMF (EMI/Warner 6787232 - review of earlier reissue).

I can’t say that Verklärte Nacht arises organically out of Weilerstein’s vigorous finale of the C-major, after a suitable pause, but it’s such a fine performance that that counts for naught. There’s passion and fire where appropriate and golden ripeness where that counts, sometimes with both in juxtaposition. Yet even those who find the Karajan recording OTT should find themselves reacting more positively to this new recording. One reason why Schoenberg originally composed the work for chamber ensemble concerns the difficulty of having a full orchestra keep together in such complex music, but that’s exactly what happens here: it’s like watching a flock of starlings swooping hither and thither and changing course in a second without colliding.

The full orchestral version can also sound congested – not just a matter of recording quality – but, while I can’t claim to have heard every last strand here, the Trondheim Soloists come as close to getting it right as I recall hearing. I like the clarity of the sextet version as recorded by the Raphael Ensemble on budget-price Hyperion Helios CDH55466 (download or CD from Hyperion currently £6.50, with Korngold String Sextet – DL News 2013/14) but the Trondheim orchestral account achieves almost the same clarity and, of course, with greater power. The Hyperion is so inexpensive that you could have the best of both worlds.

The poem on which the music is based – each section begins with an excerpt from it – is included in the booklet, thus setting the seal on a very fine first recording for Alisa Weilerstein for Pentatone and her first in association with the Trondheim Soloists.

1 But so, inexplicably, did Jacqueline du Pré in 1967 when the original score was easily available, having been edited by Gendron for his 1961 recording (Warner Original Jacket Collection 2564640415 – review of earlier EMI reissue).

2 When I reviewed the Meneses recording, I searched for this in vain. I was looking in the Haydn drawer; it was filed as Boccherini. I also, deludely, thought that it contained both Haydn concertos, as a mid-price Philips Universo LP had, and that Gendron had directed.  How deceptive is memory!

Brian Wilson

Previous review: Michael Cookson


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