Anticipating Alisa Weilerstein through video

Alisa Weilerstein
San Francisco Examiner

By Stephen Smoliar

This season cellist Alisa Weilerstein will make two visits to Davies Symphony Hall.  During the first week of February. She will perform as one of the three soloists in Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 56 “triple” concerto in C major, along with violinist Chee-Yun and pianist Jeremy Denk.  Marek Janowski will serve as guest conductor of the San Francisco Symphony.  Then on March 27 she will return to join the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic under the baton of Yuri Temirkanov in a performance of Dmitri Shostakovich’s first cello concerto (Opus 107 in E-flat major).

I first became aware of Weilerstein in June of 2008, when she performed Antonín Dvorák's Opus 104 cello concerto in B minor with the San Francisco Symphony under Michael Tilson Thomas.  This was a stunning display of her virtuosity and expressiveness, but the San Francisco Performances recital she gave this past April with Lera Auerbach was all the more impressive.  Auerbach was far more than an accompanist for this recital.  Most significantly, she had arranged the 24 piano preludes (Opus 34) that Shostakovich completed in 1933 for cello and piano.  This filled the first half of the program, followed by a performance of Auerbach’s own Opus 47, a set of original preludes for cello and piano.  The result was a “semantic adventure” into the rich diversity of what a “prelude” could “mean.”

Yet another example of Weilerstein’s diverse interests and capabilities is now available on a recently released EuroArts DVD of the May Day concert given by the Berliner Philharmoniker earlier this year.  For twenty years the Philharmoniker has performed outside Berlin on May Day in one of Europe’s great historic cities;  and the 2010 concert was given at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford.  The video is a document of live recordings made on April 30 and May 1, and Weilerstein is the soloist in a performance of Edward Elgar’s Opus 85 cello concerto in E minor, conducted by Daniel Barenboim.

When this concerto was first performed, the result was a disaster, primarily because it had been poorly rehearsed.  One can appreciate the problem Elgar faced.  Even from a structural point of view, this was far from a business-as-usual concerto; and the soloist was required to be acutely aware of considerable activity throughout the orchestra, weaving in and out of that activity according to the demands of the score.  It is a composition that demands “active listening” by every performer in the ensemble, as well as by soloist and conductor.  As far as public attention is concerned, the concerto did not recover from its catastrophic premiere on October 27, 1919 until the late Jacqueline de Pré (then Barenboim’s wife) recorded it in the Sixties;  and that recording was enthusiastically received by both the critics and the general public.

It goes without saying that every member of the Berliner Philharmoniker has all of the necessary skills for such “active listening,” as does Weilerstein herself.  The video is particularly good at revealing not only the ways in which she establishes eye contact with Barenboim but also her “auditory awareness” of the overall sound from her opening solo gesture to the final cadence (basically a response to a reprise of that same gesture).  This document thus provides one of the most tightly integrated readings of the concerto that I have personally encountered.  Indeed, the “communication network” among all the performers is so well integrated that Barenboim can often keep his gestural cues to a minimum.  One might almost say that this music is sustained by listening in the manner of any good performance of chamber music, although the sounds themselves burst far beyond the seams of any chamber music setting.

Barenboim tried to apply this same “minimal” approach to the rest of the program:  the prelude to the third act of Richard Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg before the concerto and Johannes Brahms first symphony (Opus 68 in C minor), which filled the remainder of the program.  In both cases the results were far less satisfying.  Wagner’s prelude (which precedes the final act, whose duration is about the same length as that of the first two combined) offers a fascinating synthesis of the theme critical to the raucous action of the second act with the hymn that precedes the song competition in the third.  Each of these themes has its own characteristic personality, but Barenboim never seemed to catch on to those personalities;  and, as a result, the dramatic effect of the interplay of these two themes was totally lost.

Such thematic interplay is also crucial to any effective interpretation of the Brahms symphony.  As an ensemble the Philharmoniker is well aware of this significance.  It is almost impossible to enumerate all the conductors that have performed this symphony with them.  Almost exactly a year ago San Francisco was able to enjoy their interpretation under Simon Rattle;  and those who could not get into that full-house performance could always turn to the recently-released EMI recording of all four Brahms symphonies.  Barenboim, on the other hand, alternated between his minimality, which had worked so well in the Elgar interpretation, and exaggerated gestures that seemed to say little more that “Emote!,” without providing any details.

In addition the DVD version was hampered by relatively poor video direction.  This is in sharp contrast to the impeccably aware camera work that I have encountered when watching the Philharmoniker online through their Digital Concert Hall.  Granted, the video crew may have had problems with camera placement in the Sheldonian Theatre, while the far more modern space in Berlin may well have been designed to facilitate both audio and video capture.  Fortunately, the camera work that involved Weilerstein ran the gamut from good to excellent;  but the treatment of the rest of the concert did little to facilitate or enhance the overall listening experience.