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A Masterpiece and a Middling Piece, Both Powerfully Delivered

by Eric C. Simpson

Posted: Dec 18, 2012 12:00 PM


Alisa Weilerstein, photo: Decca/©Harald Hoffman.

Elgar's dark and powerful concerto in E minor occupies a place of honor in the pantheon of the cello repertoire. On Friday night at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia, thirty year-old cellist Alisa Weilerstein gave it an extraordinarily mature and poised performance.

The first movement is marked “nobilmente,” and one could indeed hear a tragic nobility in the opening recitative. It was a relatively quiet statement, but one that was brimming with a consuming grief. The orchestra, led by Gianandrea Noseda, never overpowered the soloist, but expanded beautifully to fill the tutti sections. The gorgeous, wistful cadenza bridging the first and second movements dissolved into nothing before Ms. Weilerstein launched into the scherzo. Her playing in this movement alternated between whimsy and fury, once or twice teetering on the edge of “frantic.” Maestro Noseda had to be nudged along occasionally, but for the most part stayed right with her.

That word “nobility” often occurred to me in this performance, and in the third movement there was love and warmth, as well. It ended with a sigh, teasing at the possibility of resolution. Maestro Noseda wasted no time in interrupting the reverie with the ominous opening sequence of the finale, and when the main subject arrived at full tempo, Ms. Weilerstein gave it a fabulously energetic push. She plays with a wonderful freedom, and she lent a surreal quality to some of the moving passages. For one sublime moment, she played at scarcely more than a whisper, but the orchestra still managed to sit just under her. The final accelerando ended with what felt like a powerful condemnation. Ms. Weilerstein's artistry is tremendous, and it was not difficult to understand on Friday how she has risen to her position of preeminence in the cello world.

Earlier, the program began with an unremarkable performance of Borodin's Prince Igor overture. Maestro Noseda chose a nice tempo initially—the opening can easily become a lengthy ordeal—but thereafter the piece was less than thrilling. This overture is relatively straightforward: it does not require a lot of tempo shenanigans, but there needs to be a sense of excitement about it, and that was not apparent. The Maestro never let his violins loose in their moments of soaring lyricism, and the quieter sections did not have a great deal of energy. It was a very controlled performance of an exuberant piece. One bow was enough for this audience.

In Tchaikovsky's third symphony, on the other hand, Maestro Noseda was inspired. Though often regarded as a major step forward in the composer's career, the “Polish” symphony pales in comparison to the three that followed it. There is some very fine material in the inner movements, but the piece as a whole is rather academic compared to Tchaikovsky's greater works, and to turn in a performance of it as powerful as this one is impressive.

The first movement began briskly, with a foreboding hush. I thought the Maestro missed a few opportunities to be free with his tempo, but the textures were just right. There was a smattering of applause at the end of the movement, after which he flowed gracefully through the “Alla tedesca,” a waltzing scherzo.

The highlight of this performance was the third movement, “Andante elegaico.” Maestro Noseda's no-frills approach served him well here, lending a beautiful simplicity to his interpretation, particularly in the sorrowful exchange between bassoon and horn. The fourth movement, with its running sixteenth notes passed around by various instruments, can be treacherous, and Friday was unfortunately no exception. The result was a slight feeling of drag, but the orchestra still managed a sense of hushed excitement.

The finale was a bit muddy at the very opening, and it was hard to hear the violins. They quickly came out of it, however, and the nobility (there it is again) of the first subject broke through. In this movement, Maestro Noseda at last gave himself license with the tempo, allowing the music to expand marvelously before the coda, which drove the symphony home to its energetic finish, and drew a well-deserved and extended ovation.

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