Weilerstein and Barnatan make sterling partners in Celebrity Series recital

May 2, 2015 at 2:37 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Alisa Weilerstein and Inon Barnatan performed Friday night at Jordan Hall for the Celebrity Series. Photo: Robert Torres

The Celebrity Series hosted an all-star duo Friday night at Jordan Hall as cellist Alisa Weilerstein and pianist Inon Barnatan teamed up for an enriching program of chamber music.

The musicians have been performing together for several years, yet in that time each has achieved increasing recognition as a solo artist. Barnatan has been named Artist in Association with the New York Philharmonic and made his Celebrity Series debut in a solo recital earlier this season. And in recent years Weilerstein has emerged as one of the premiere cellists of her generation.

Both play with a dazzling technique and a level of communication and expression so clear that they can practically finish each other’s phrases. The Israeli pianist performs with sparkling tone and colorful interpretive nuance that makes him a sensitive accompanist to Weilerstein, who commands a solid presence at the cello. Her sound is soulful and thoroughly songlike, her phrasing spacious.

Those aspects of their playing were evident in Friday evening’s opener, Beethoven’s Cello Sonata No. 5 in D major.

The duo’s performance of the second movement was especially haunting, which sounded with solemn hymn-like tones. The effect was poetic. Barnatan played with elegant touch and phrasing, while Weilerstein lofted melodies that had a vibrant intensity, even when she was called upon to play the thinnest pianissimo.

The outer movements featured the cellist in more robust playing. In the first, she maneuvered effortlessly between singing and agitated melodies, and her statements of the fugal Finale were played with a dance-like grace. Barnatan supplied a muscular accompaniment, answering Weilerstein’s figures with passages of bite and precision.

The duo’s most fiery playing came in Schubert’s Fantasy in C major, D. 934.

Originally scored for violin and piano, the work, composed in the last year of Schubert’s life, is filled with light textures, lilting melody, and passages of jaw-dropping virtuosity. Weilerstein’s and Barnatan’s cello-piano transcription of the work is a successful retooling that retains note-for-note the lyricism and technical ferocity of the original.

The duo’s performance was as dramatic as it was technically mesmerizing. The opening grew slowly out of a mist of twinkling piano accompaniment, with Weilerstein floating a silvery line overhead. The fast sections had the character of a dance and took the cellist all over the fingerboard of her instrument. She was in fine command of it all, unleashing the cascading figures with finesse while keeping an ear to the shape of the musical line. Barnatan’s playing was just as solid, and he rendered his phrases with clarity and a light but penetrating touch. The hallmark of this performance came in the slow passages, which sounded with the full splendor of Schubert’s lyricism.

Weilerstein has been an ardent champion of new music and since her time at the Cleveland Institute of Music, has performed and promoted the music of Joseph Hallman.

Hallman’s DreamLog, heard in its Boston premiere Friday night, was written for Weilerstein and Barnatan, and places creative power in the hands of the performers. The eleven movements of the work, each capturing a fleeting impression of a dream, may be performed in any order, and some movements can be cut entirely. In its full length, the work clocks in at about forty minutes.

Friday night, Weilerstein and Barnatan offered four movements of the work. It’s difficult to judge a piece based on only a few selections, but from what was heard Friday night DreamLog makes colorful and evocative use of the cello and piano.

The first of the pieces performed opened with a series of agitated statements on a single note in the cello while silky harmonies soared overhead in the piano part. The second involved a celestial wash of thin cello harmonics and stark piano harmonies. The third piece, which bears the title “Poulenc/ Picasso versus Shostakovich/ Kandinsky,” is chock-full of driving, percussive rhythms, which the duo played with boldness and precision.

Most colorful was the fourth movement, a musical depiction of an Arctic landscape that was bare in texture and haunting in effect. Weilerstein and Barnatan took turns inhaling and exhaling into microphones for sounds that provided an eerie accompaniment to the cellist’s thin strands of melody and the stratospheric piano harmonies. The music broke into brief stretches of tender melody, though the piece quickly returned to the glassy sonorities that opened the movement.

Weilerstein and Barnatan played the selections from DreamLog with fine touch and sensitivity to make a strong case for Hallman’s work.

The main offering on the concert’s second half was Rachmaninoff’s Cello Sonata in G minor, Op. 19. The sprawling, concerto-like work contains some of the composer’s richest and most memorable melodic writing.

Yet it’s also a work that demands a daunting amount of technical skill for both cellist and pianist. Weilerstein and Barnatan brought the full Rachmaninoff, taking care to mine the palpable drama from each phrase. The cellist’s tone swelled to full resplendence in the first movement’s principal theme, while the strains of the ensuing melody sounded with rich mahogany sound. At the piano, Barnatan supplied tender dynamic shading.

The Scherzo featured the musicians in dark, edgy sonorities, though they found the singing quality in the big theme that followed. The lines of the Finale soared in its brisk tempo.

The Andante was particularly gorgeous with dark, lyrical, and mysterious piano work from Barnatan. Weilerstein answered in kind, the cellist lofting beautiful, heartfelt melodies overhead.

A single encore brought more Rachmaninoff, this time a vivid and expressive rendering of the Vocalise.

The next Celebrity Series event will feature pianist Stephen Hough in music by Chopin and Debussy 8 p.m. May 8 at Jordan Hall. celebrityseries.org

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