Lera Auerbach, Alisa Weilerstein

Alisa Weilerstein
San Francisco Chronicle

By Joshua Kosman

If you didn't know that the Russian-born pianist and composer Lera Auerbach was also a poet, you could probably deduce it from the exquisite set of 24 Preludes that she and cellist Alisa Weilerstein performed in Herbst Theatre on Tuesday night.

Each of these short pieces - one in each of the major and minor keys - is a lyric poem in music, creating a mood, a melodic notion or a completely imagined microcosm that then vanishes as quickly as it arrived. Development is left for another day; these are pieces that work in quick, evocative strokes.

And do they work! The range of Auerbach's inspiration is phenomenal, from the stark, incantatory opening Prelude in C to the lush, rhapsodic G-Flat Prelude that stands at the halfway point (and returned as a welcome encore).

This is a venerable tradition, as Tuesday's recital, presented by San Francisco Performances, made clear. The first half of the program was given over to Shostakovich's 24 Preludes, Op. 34, in Auerbach's deft transcription for violin and cello.

That set is an immediate forebear, and chronologically behind that stand Chopin's path-breaking set of Preludes, Op. 28, and Bach's "Well-Tempered Clavier," from which Chopin surgically extracted the preludes while leaving the fugues on the cutting-room floor.

But Auerbach - whose large-scale musical thinking was on display last month in the extravagant orchestral score for choreographer John Neumeier's "The Little Mermaid" at the San Francisco Ballet - has made this kind of project a specialty. This set of preludes is her third, following sets for solo piano and piano and violin, respectively.

It's not hard to see what appeals about this structure, or why Auerbach - whose links to musical and literary Romanticism are palpable - should be so deft at it. In addition to the variety on display, she has a gift for pure invention.

Her melodies are clear, distinctive and easily memorable, so that when she works a variation or a sardonic comment on a theme, the listener grasps it immediately. Her rhythmic palette, though scarcely intricate, is sufficiently ornate to keep the music from lapsing into predictability.

And when Auerbach sets out to elicit an emotional state - as she does most unforgettably in two preludes marked "sognando" ("dreaming") - the results can be stunning. The penultimate prelude, in F major, has the cellist playing a simple melody in harmonics with the mute on, creating a hallucinatory and barely audible atmosphere.

Weilerstein and Auerbach proved a formidable duo, finding a joint rhythmic groove in the more extravagantly athletic preludes and collaborating in tender sympathy for the more lyrical moments. Weilerstein shone particularly in several of the preludes during which the piano is silent.

The Shostakovich set was also a marvel, marked by several ingenious ideas for expanding the original piano music to a duet texture.

The only reservation here was that the broad, lyrical voice of the cello sometimes tended to blunt Shostakovich's more acerbic moments. Auerbach cannily had Weilerstein playing on the bridge of the instrument to produce a grainy effect for the purely satiric preludes; but others began as parodies of Rachmaninoff that quickly became heartfelt homages.