Review: Weilerstein, Barnatan find the thread in Beethoven

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times
Cellist Alisa Weilerstein and pianist Inon Barnatan “applied impeccable technique” in their performance of two Beethoven sonatas during an Aspen Music Festival virtual concert Sunday.
Laura Smith

In the mid-1990s a small group of us crowded into one of the bungalow practice rooms at the old Castle Creek campus to audit a master class at the Aspen Music Festival. Coaching a student cellist and pianist in the first movement of Beethoven’s Sonata in A major, the cellist Yehuda Hannani spent more time delving into the piece’s structure than on technical details.

Hannani’s flair for talking about music could teach students and casual listeners more than a semester-long music appreciation course. For this sonata, he suggested a musical narrative that has stuck with me for years. The cello starts with a short tune, he noted, and the piano proposes a possible continuation. The cello disagrees, with civility, and the whole movement plays gently with that tension until they finally agree on the same continuation, which they play together in octaves at the end of the movement.

Often it’s a performer’s great technical ability that gets us to connect with a great piece of music. Sometimes, though, it has more to do with what the composer might have been trying to say, and how the musicians interpret it. A great performance, as happened Sunday in the Aspen Music Festival’s third marquee concert in its virtual summer series, does both.

Cellist Alisa Weilerstein and pianist Inon Barnatan applied impeccable technique and a gently persuasive approach to two Beethoven sonatas in a musically compelling Aspen Music Festival recital beamed live from Baker-Baum Concert Hall in La Jolla, California.

Longtime recital partners, they have been living in a “pod” at Weilerstein’s home near the venue with her husband (the conductor Rafael Payareas), as Barnatan gears up for his second season as music director of the La Jolla Music Society Summerfest, streaming next month. That proximity certainly helped put them on the same page for this program.

The short (less than one hour) concert consisted of two of Beethoven’s five cello sonatas. Though the darker, denser fifth in D major carries more weight — it even ends with a fugue — it was the conversational and light-spirited third in A major that came off as more beguiling. At least it was for me, thanks to that memorable experience early in my regular visits to Aspen for the summer festival.

Weilerstein and Barnatan worked their way through the music Sunday with impressive unanimity, precise articulation, and a feel for the narrative. On a fully lit stage in the empty hall, they created moments of serenity until their different paths led to pauses at some points, and at other moments steely eyed confrontation. A listener could sense the tension build and recede winningly.

The second movement Scherzo, with its syncopations and off-beats, danced merrily as if in celebration of newfound amity at the end of the first movement. (The video director’s quick cuts from one camera to another during this movement proved more intrusive than exciting.) The short Adagio introduced a moment of calm, played with admirable restraint, before deftly decisive playing in the Allegro vivace brought the sonata to juicy finish.

The D major sonata found its bearings quickly in a brilliantly played first movement Allegro that reveled in Beethoven’s generous array of melodies and lively give-and-take between the players. But the meat of this meal came with the expansive Adagio. Marked “with much sentiment of affection,” the music could easily have gone over the top, but Weilerstein and Barnatan reined in any of that and produced a sustained, almost wistful, feeling throughout.

That led to the final fugue, which they seemed to conjure out of the ether. They wended their way through the composer’s own sense of melodic counterpoint, very different from Bach’s. It breathed with a naturalness that made the performance all the more satisfying.

A rebroadcast can be accessed Tuesday at 7 p.m. on the Aspen Music Festival website’s “Virtual Stage,” Facebook page or YouTube channel.


Pianist Behzod Abduraimov tackles Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at a Exhibition” in next Sunday’s featured virtual concert at 3 p.m. This week’s faculty student showcase eavesdrops on San Francisco Symphony timpanist Edward Stephan give private instruction to several student percussionists Wednesday at 5 p.m.

Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival since the mid-1990s. His reviews appear Tuesdays in The Aspen Times.