Alisa Weilerstein plays with fire and verve in her local debut

Inon Barnatan & Alisa Weilerstein, Inon Barnatan, Alisa Weilerstein

By Susan Isaacs Nisbett

In its length, in its music, and most of all, in the playing, the recital that cellist Alisa Weilerstein and pianist Inon Barnatan played Thursday evening at Hill Auditorium was welcomely full to the brim. And for the audience hearing the 27-year-old Weilerstein for the first time as she made her University Musical Society debut, it was an introduction to a young cellist who is thrillingly the real deal, playing - like her terrific partner, Barnatan, who has appeared here before - from the inside out, passionately so, and with a big, juicy sound that grabs you by the throat and simultaneously pastes a smile on your face that stays the whole night. I can’t recall when I’ve enjoyed a recital more.

If much of the evening’s playing - in music of Beethoven, Britten, Stravinsky and Rachmaninoff - was white-hot, what was striking in the opening adagio of the Beethoven Cello Sonata No. 2 in g minor, Op. 5, No. 2, which began the concert, was the breathtaking poise of the music-making, with silences as potent and palpable as the phrases they separated. And then - whammo! a rhapsodic release in the ensuing allegro, with big, gutsy, almost organ-like sound.

What made the music so thrilling goes beyond that, though: the pair’s broad emotional and timbral palette - for brio and orchestral sound, the concluding rondo was unbeatable (I loved the bass growls and playfully rustic little-piggy grunts Weilerstein produced) - and a unity of spirit between the two that far exceeds notions of tight ensemble.

The Britten Cello Sonata in C Major, Op. 65, was a compelling adventure of a different sort. If you didn’t check the title of the first movement -- “Dialogo,” i.e., “Dialog” - it didn’t much matter. The conversation was as clear as, well, the voice of someone near you on a cell phone (and the person on the other end). The conversation partners here, cello and piano, exchange monosyllables, then longer phrases; the couple argues in musical outbursts.

The wonderful thing, as the quartet proceeded, was how Weilerstein and Barnatan took the conversation through all the movements: the sense of speech never left, whether in warbling calls back and forth at the end of the scherzo, or ostinato figures in the “Elegia” that read like the repeated statements of someone who just can’t leave a point alone.

With Stravinsky’s “Suite Italienne,” which opened the concert’s second half, the audience was in quite familiar territory: most probably heard it once already this season, in the UMS opening concert with violinist Itzhak Perlman. But here we had the cello and piano, and a new look that went beyond the change of instrumental register and slightly differing versions.

Weilerstein and Barnatan, for example, shaped a quite smooth “Introduzione” that nonetheless offered such crisp rhythmic diction and fleet ornamentation that it became awfully playful. That razor-edge rhythmic sense pervaded the whole suite; the “Tarantella” - repeated later as an encore - was so exciting the audience burst into wild applause though there was yet another, more soulful movement to come.

Soulfulness found its fullest outlet in the Rachmaninoff Cello Sonata in g minor, Op. 19, that ended the evening. If you were looking for luscious, ripe melodies, or for luscious, ripe playing - or for roiling torments and G Major triumph - all were gorgeously rendered here. The standing ovation that followed was the least the audience could do in response.