She has played in an evening of classical music at the White House, at Lincoln Center and in festivals around the world, and with some of the world’s greatest musicians. The young American cellist Alisa Weilerstein is currently in Jerusalem to perform at the city’s Annual International Chamber Music Festival (her final performance is on Sept. 12). The recipient of numerous awards, the 33-year-old artist has recorded albums for prestigious companies and played under the baton of conductors such as Daniel Barenboim and Jiri Belohlavek. Weilerstein’s 2014 album “Solo” (on the Decca label) is yet another milestone in her soaring career. This is an album that took courage to record, as it’s all cello: no orchestra, no piano, no strings. Raw cello, no more.
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How can a cello be sustained alone in a recital? Until the 1930s, when the Catalan cellist Pablo Casals recorded Bach’s unaccompanied cello suites, only cognoscenti who were familiar with the repertoire believed that was possible. Bach’s suites were not performed – other than by Casals, occasionally – because they were apparently considered excessively didactic. But his recordings made the works known to other cellists, to the public and to composers as well. Weilerstein’s CD thus owes a great debt to Bach, and the most salient work that was written in the spirit of the Baroque composer is the one that opens the album: Zoltan Kodaly’s “Sonata for Solo Cello,” (1915).
Weilerstein’s rendition of the Kodaly work reveals her distinctive musical character: tempestuous, decisive, almost attacking the music and the cello in order to conquer the target. Kodaly’s work, with its huge technical demands and, no less, its emotional thrust, is not an easy one to conquer. Indeed, it does not have to be “conquered” or “confronted,” only surrendered to. Weilerstein does not really make this possible. She renders the diverse effects of the piece spectacularly – the high whistles, the long, warm phrases, the complex headlong rhythms that resonate with inspiration from the Hungarian folk tradition. We are in the presence of a prodigiously talented cellist, of that there can be no doubt. Yet if she gave the music a little more time, was in a bit less of a rush, was willing to let go more, the sonata would only benefit.
These qualities – delay, lightness, humor, letting go, perhaps even risk-taking – are especially needed in the work that closes the CD, “Seven Tunes Heard in China,” by the Shanghai-born Chinese-American composer Bright Sheng. The seven tunes exude charm in Weilerstein’s performance. Here too she is able to muster all her technical skill in order to produce the work’s smart effects – it’s a delight to hear the tunes under her bow. Yet it seems to me, perhaps mistakenly, that something in the realm of release, humor and lightness is missing here, too. These seemingly simple works are actually extraordinarily difficult, and the tension spawned by the need to navigate them safely is apparent.
Sheng is one of the many composers with whom Weilerstein has cooperated. She is fond of contemporary composers and eager to play their works. For example, the Argentine composer Osvaldo Golijov, whose work “Omaramor” is also included on the album. Golijov’s compositions resonate with his musical tradition, and “Omaramor” is no exception. Here it is the tango of one of the dance form’s seminal artists, Carlos Gardel, along with the Jewish-Romanian traditions of Golijov’s parents.
The fourth work on the album, the Cello Suite by the Spanish composer Gaspar Cassado, from the 1920s, derives its inspiration from ancient Spanish dances: saraband, sardana and jota. The CD thus acquires a dimension of depth that makes it far more than just another solo cello recital. All the compositions are bound by the force of folk gravity, by ancient civilizations, by melody, harmony and color stemming from those sources, and as such by a singular, surpassing beauty.
In her comments on the CD, Weilerstein takes note of a very important element that is missing in recordings of 20th-century music, indeed in recordings as such: the absence of the visual dimension. Anyone who has seen a performance of the Kodaly sonata has experienced that dimension of sheer choreography. To extract the utmost from the score, the cellist has to activate her whole body, wave her hands, hunch over the instrument, pluck its strings, drum on them and transform the work into a living, breathing essence under her bow. The same holds for the other pieces on the album, notably Golijov’s distinctive, complex work. Those who were able to see Weilerstein at the chamber music festival experienced that missing dimension.