This recording of the Elgar Cello Concerto
has had its period of gestation, with Alisa Weilerstein and Daniel Barenboim
already having performed
together a few years before working on this release. Riding
high in the classical charts and having been applauded far and wide,
my little contribution to this disc’s history already comes in the wake
of considerable success. Having not so long ago had Paul Watkins’ excellent
Chandos label Elgar to review
my first musings were as to which I might prefer. Paul Watkins and Sir
Andrew Davis are genuinely superb in this piece, and Chandos’s SACD
recording is pretty spectacular as well. By comparison, Alisa Weilerstein
makes Watkins sound more reflective that I had remembered, her more
impassioned playing closer in nature to Jacqueline du Pré’s in some
ways, though Weilerstein is less inclined to linger on the notes, and
her timings are always just a shade shorter.
Weilerstein and Barenboim are very good, though in general I don’t feel quite the sense of character from the orchestra as I do from the BBC Philharmonic on Chandos. There is lovely wind playing from the Staatskapelle Berlin and Barenboim lifts out plenty of the dynamic shading from the score, but there is something else in the atmosphere created by the BBC players. Take that weighty, almost leaden tread from the orchestra around the six minute mark in the first movement. In the run up to the big top note from the cello just before the seventh minute with this Decca version these make little impact, where with Davis they convey a real sense of world-weariness – Elgar the elder, his walking shoes pacing the tread of the lost souls of World War I.
Very ably accompanied, it is very much Weilerstein’s ascendant star which will sell this performance to you. She is highly effective in the big solo which opens the second movement, and while you might prefer Watkins’ playfulness with the opening of the movement proper once can but admire her technical prowess and sense of contrast amidst all that onward pushing, Elgar generating extra urgency with all those repeated notes. The Adagio
ticks all the boxes, Weilerstein using subtle restraint in her tone to sing above the orchestra. The final and longest movement is imbued with all of the poignant and tragic emotion you could wish for, with that sense of fin du siècle regret never far from the surface, even where Elgar puts on his jaunty face. If we’re going to compare with Jacqueline du Pré/Barbirolli
then this is an interesting point to do so, with the classic EMI recording delivering potently in terms of nobility and defiant passion, but taking us less far down that road of vulnerability and sense of personal sadness than Weilerstein/Barenboim. That moment towards the end of the movement where the Adagio
theme returns is genuinely transcendent from Du Pré, the face turned towards the heavens and lifted beyond earthly cares. With Weilerstein this story is more personal, the voice continuing to sing but becoming lonelier and lonelier, agonisingly slipping from our grasp rather than being raised onto a higher plane.
Elliott Carter’s Cello Concerto
is a remarkable piece, with a sparing and pointillist orchestration which dramatically responds to and allies itself to the cello part, creating as Alisa Weilerstein says, “a one-on-one conversation”. I fear that many who have this CD may try this work once, decide it is not for them and never play it again. It is indeed a work which demands focus to appreciate, but the flow of the music has its own sense of inevitability and architectural logic, and there are plenty of magical moments to prickle the senses. Indeed, there is a good deal of humour and wit in the character of this piece, with Webernesque interjections turning themselves into figures which muse, mutter, jeer and whoop from the sidelines as the cellist pours out her heart. I’ve found Elliott Carter ‘difficult’ myself in the past, but his Cello Concerto
is one of his more easily appreciated pieces even from just an initial introduction. There is an alternative recording on the Bridge label with Fred Sherry and the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Oliver Knussen which is also very good (see review
As a ‘bonus’ we have the not insubstantial addition of Max
Bruch’s brilliant Kol Nidrei, in which the cello in part plays
the role of a chanting Aramaic prayer. This is a gorgeous and impassioned
performance which seals the deal as to whether this is an attractive
proposition or not. To sum up, this an excellent disc; deeply compelling
on all levels and worth every cent of its asking price.