Britten, Brahms, Chopin works prove Weilerstein’s blossomed
July 10, 2009
ASPEN – One of the most rewarding aspects of returning annually to the Aspen Music Festival is to watch young talent blossom before our very ears. It wasn’t that long ago that Alisa Weilerstein was the kid cellist performing here regularly in a trio with her parents, who played violin and piano. Now, at 26, she has become a star on her own, bringing admirable technique and original musicality to the classical cello repertoire.
We heard it last year when she made Osvaldo Golijov’s Azul one of the highlights of the season. And in Wednesday’s recital in Harris Hall, with pianist Inon Barnatan, she took on several pieces in the Mount Rushmore of cello chamber literature. It is a measure of just how good she was that it’s difficult to pick one to highlight.
The Britten Sonata in C major perhaps demonstrated all facets of what makes her special. In the opening Allegro (Dialogo), she attacked the rapid passages with ferocity, without losing the rich sound she gets from the instrument. In the Scherzo (Pizzicato), her sense of rhythm could be playful, and bang-on for timing. In the Lento (Elegia), she made the cello sing with an almost-human character.
That singing quality may be what’s most remarkable about Weilerstein’s playing. Here silky and refined, there picking up a gutteral edge, it seems to have a life of its own, always with shape and texture that morphs into different colors with each turn. She put all these elements to breathtaking use in Maurice Marechal’s Suite populaire espagnole, a charming transcription for cello and piano of Manuel de Falla’s song cycle.
In the Brahms Cello Sonata No. 1 in E minor, she navigated its tricky turns like a sleek sports car. That singing came to the fore again with special warmth in the short Largo of the Chopin Cello Sonata in G minor, and the springy rhythms of the surrounding scherzo and finale carried it through to an irresistible finish.
Barnatan, a young Israeli pianist also with formidable technique, has made his reputation so far on solo recitals and performances with orchestra. As a collaborator in chamber music, he showed a tendency to lapse into solo mode, but only occasionally drowning up Weilerstein. At least there was nothing dull about his work. Monday’s faculty chamber music concert in Harris Hall included a lively and deftly fashioned Brahms Horn Trio in E flat, featuring seamless ensemble playing and beautiful work by hornist Eli Epstein, violinist David Halen and pianist Anton Nel.
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Those who were part of the mass exodus after that, including a herd of violin and horn students presumably escaping to their practice rooms, missed a marvelous moment, a rare performance of George Crumb’s 1974 Music for a Summer Evening.
Despite the pleasant, innocuous title, Crumb’s night music for percussion and two pianos bears little resemblance to a Chopin Nocturne, or what we usually think of night music. In Crumb’s world, not only do things go bump but they make other-worldly sounds that compel, fascinate and ultimately scare the bejeebers out of a listener. Not to mention the percussionists, who must race from gongs to vibes to temple blocks to vibraphones and chimes and play them not only with their usual mallets but with string players’ bows.
In one of the five movements, called “Myth,” they employ slide whistles taped onto pieces of cardboard, playing a duet into the pianos. The pianists, meanwhile, not only play their instruments normally but must occasionally strum chords (which, by the way, makes a marvelous sound with tubular bells).
Working furiously, pianists Wu Han and Rita Sloan brought this dynamic and unusual music to life with percussionists Jonathan Haas and Edward Zaryky. Despite the technical challenges, they all played with aplomb and with remarkable unanimity. Each of the five movements created a differing night world. It was an unforgettable 35 minutes.
In their concert Tuesday in Harris Hall, the Takacs Quartet seemed strangely subdued as they played dutifully and cleanly through Mozart’s String Quartet in D major, K. 575. Clarinetist Joaquin Valdepenas and pianist Antoinette Perry, both faculty artists, joined the quartet’s violist, Geraldine Walther, for a livelier Mozart Trio “Kegelstatt,” before the quartet picked up the pace through most of Schumann’s String Quartet No. 3 in A major. They captured remarkable details in the Schumann, breathing together and putting lovely spins on phrases. It was great stuff until the finale ran out of gas in the final pages. Then, like a pitcher losing a shutout in the ninth inning, they finished on a sour note, the final unison out of tune.
On Wednesday Aspen got to hear one its co-commissions, Lalo Schifrin’s Tangos Concertante. Best known for his jazz, television and movie scores, the Argentina-born Schifrin once played piano in the fabled tango composer Astor Piazzola’s group. Some of Piazzola’s riffs found their way into this new score, but none of the late composer’s charm, wit, musical inventiveness and clarity of purpose. The score is a mess, volleys of notes lost in ineptly judged balances, rhythms far too complex for a full orchestra, and on and on.
Violinist Cio-Lang Lin, whom the piece was written for, sawed away manfully, but there just wasn’t enough there to make something memorable.
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Not to miss this weekend – A clarinet concerto by the festival’s own Alan Fletcher opens Friday’s Chamber Symphony program, which also includes Vladimir Feltsman playing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor. The Takacs quartet joins Jeffrey Kahane to play the Dvorak Piano Quintet in A major on Saturday afternoon’s Harris Hall chamber music. If Weilerstein wasn’t fabulous enough playing cello, David Finckel plays a recital of Mendelssohn, Tsontakis and Rachmaninoff with his pianist wife, Wu Han, Saturday night in Harris Hall. And Sunday afternoon, Gil Shaham pinch-hits for Janine Jansen, who cut her finger, in the Tchaikovsky violin concerto in a program that includes John Harbison’s operatic Symphony No. 5, conducted by David Zinman.