November 08, 2012

(++++) WARMTH AND BITE


Elgar: Cello Concerto; Carter: Cello Concerto; Bruch: Kol Nidre. Alisa Weilerstein, cello; Staatskapelle Berlin conducted by Daniel Barenboim. Decca. $12.99.

Cowell: Synchrony; Piano Concerto; Harrison: Concerto for Organ with Percussion Orchestra; Varèse: Amériques (1927 version). Jeremy Denk, piano; Paul Jacobs, organ; San Francisco Symphony conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas. SFS Media. $18.98 (SACD).

      Anyone with even a passing knowledge of 20th-century classical music cannot help but be moved by the pairing of Alisa Weilerstein and Daniel Barenboim for a splendid new recording of Elgar’s Cello Concerto.  This concerto was the signature piece of Jacqueline du Pré, the brilliant cellist who was Barenboim’s wife and who died of multiple sclerosis in 1987 at the age of 42.  The du Pré recording of this concerto, conducted by Sir John Barbirolli, is rightly considered legendary – it is a magnificent performance – and Weilerstein herself says it was deeply influential on her, to the point at which she knew she had to stop listening to it and strike out on her own. That she has done so brilliantly, and has produced an excellent Elgar recording with Barenboim as conductor, is an accomplishment that goes well beyond the fine playing of cellist and orchestra alike. It feels like a new beginning and the laying to rest, after nearly half a century, of the notion that the du Pré rendition of this piece is unapproachable; it also seems to provide closure for a stirring (and controversial) love affair.  There have been other fine performances and recordings of this concerto, but Weilerstein’s is the first that strides forth boldly on its own terms, with astonishing technical felicity and a level of strong emotion radiating throughout – this is wholly convincing and tremendously involving music-making. It is not altogether fair to compare the recording with du Pré’s from 1965, but it is perhaps inevitable; and Weilerstein’s stands up extremely well. Du Pré is a touch more involved, her playing having a feeling of greater spontaneity and a slightly higher level of emotional intensity; Weilerstein is somewhat more studied, with everything just where it should be and some exceptional attention to detail and phrasing (for which Barenboim too deserves much credit: Staatskapelle Berlin is at least the equal of Barbirolli’s Philharmonia Orchestra).  Weilerstein is perhaps a trifle cooler than du Pré but in no way less emotional. This is the first recording that really does deserve to be placed just about at du Pré’s level.

      Weilerstein does an equally fine job with Elliott Carter’s Cello Concerto, written when the composer, who just died – a month before he would have turned 104 – was merely 93, in 2001.  This is a far more acerbic work than the Elgar and a highly challenging one technically. It sounds like a piece that an expert cellist would have a great time playing, and one that would be wonderful to watch being performed on stage – some of the pyrotechnics are quite amazing. The seven-section piece is not entirely successful in recorded form, being episodic and somewhat self-indulgent in its techniques, but Weilerstein performs it masterfully, with the contrast between the Giocoso and following Lento section especially well done and the final Allegro fantastico being altogether, well, fantastic. And at the other end of the emotional spectrum, Bruch’s hyper-Romantic Kol Nidre brings out every bit of warmth and tenderness that Weilerstein can extract from her 1790 William Forster instrument. This is the most relaxed of the three performances on Decca’s CD, with Weilerstein and Barenboim seeming to communicate telepathically as the music ebbs and flows with great beauty and style.  The CD is an altogether winning one from start to finish.

      So is the new SACD from SFS Media, the San Francisco Symphony’s own label, but in a very different way. The orchestra has several times played concert series called “American Mavericks,” and this disc offers four examples, all recorded live, of what that title means. Henry Cowell’s Synchrony was recorded in December 2010, the other works here in March 2012. Cowell is considered the inventor, in 1913, of the tone cluster, and both Synchrony (1930) and the piano concerto (1928) make use of the device; indeed, the concerto’s second movement is called “Tone Cluster.”  The concerto, which Jeremy Denk plays very well indeed, is the more interesting of the two pieces, its virtuosity at the service of musical material that continues to sound very modern even 80-plus years after it was composed. The concluding “Counter Rhythm” is particularly impressive – as is the way soloist and orchestra stay together and keep up with each other during it. Synchrony, intended as a choreographic work (Martha Graham started on the dance elements but did not complete them), has interesting moments as well, but they are fewer and less consistent.  Lou Harrison’s Concerto for Organ with Percussion Orchestra, though, is a winner throughout.  Harrison was a student of Cowell, and some of that influence is apparent in this music, but not all that much: Harrison had his own style, and it flowers wonderfully in this work, which does an excellent job contrasting the sound of the organ (which is essentially a woodwind) with that of the many percussion instruments.  Paul Jacobs is a splendid organist and seems thoroughly at home in this complex and, um, brassy music, which is a rhythmic feast as well as a superb display piece for soloist and percussionists alike. Again, as in the Cowell works, Michael Tilson Thomas proves a highly adept leader with a strong sense of balance and of effectively managing the interplay of solo and tutti sections.

      The final work on this disc is in some ways the most complex. Edgard Varèse was one of the least prolific of composers, completing barely more than a dozen works, but he was a trailblazer and something of an enfant terrible throughout his life. Amériques, originally written from 1918 to 1922 and revised several times thereafter, requires 125 players and some “noise” (as opposed to musical) instruments, notably wailing sirens.  Its intensity and somewhat self-conscious modernism are indicative of the Parisian musical scene in the 1910s and early 1920s, reminiscent of such works as Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 2. But Amériques stands on its own as an intense, complex and highly effective piece that Varèse insisted was absolute music but in which listeners will inevitably hear reflections of the mechanization of life, warfare and music itself in the 20th century.  Tilson Thomas shapes the work well – it can easily sprawl and lumber out of control – and keeps it moving effectively and with considerable musicality.  Certainly Varèse, who became an American citizen in 1927, deserves to be deemed an American maverick to the same extent as U.S.-born Cowell and Harrison, even if Amériques predates its composer’s adoption of his new country.  More important than labels, though, is the quality of the music of these “mavericks,” and that turns out to be very high indeed – and exceptionally well communicated by this conductor and this orchestra.

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