DVORAK: Cello Concerto in B Minor & other works for cello & piano – Alisa Weilerstein, cello/ Anna Polonsky, p./ Czech Philharmonic Orch,/ Jiri Belohlavek – Decca

by | Mar 18, 2014 | Classical CD Reviews

DVORAK: Cello Concerto in B Minor, Op. 104; Rondo in G Minor, Op. 94; Silent Woods, Op. 68, No. 5; Lasst mich allein, Op. 82, No. 1 (arr. Lenehan); Songs My Mother Taught Me, Op. 55, No. 4 (arr. Gruenfeld); Goin’ Home (arr. Lenehan); Slavonic Dance in G Minor, Op. 46, No. 8 – Alisa Weilerstein, cello/ Anna Polonsky, p./ Czech Philharmonic Orch,/ Jiri Belohlavek – Decca B0019765-02, 67:10 [Distr. by Universal] (4/7/14) ****:

It must be inevitable that every recording of the Dvorak 1894 Cello Concerto made by any soloist with the Czech Philharmonic (28-29 June 2013) must be compared with the immortal inscription by Pablo Casals with the same ensemble under George Szell from 1937.  Alisa Weilerstein (b. 1982) has been under contract to Decca for one year, and she has inscribed the Elgar and Carter concertos for them.  In Dvorak, she demonstrates her patented, artistic resolve and firmness of musical purpose, as she intones a fiercely personal statement in a work already documented with the composer’s own romantic sub-text, his long-unrequited love for Josefina Cermakova.  Jiri Belohlavek does not attempt to equal Szell’s driven ferocity in the opening movement, but rather coaxes a suave, flexible cushion of sound to support Weilerstein’s ardent lyricism, realized with a directness of expression that will warrant comparisons with the late Jacqueline Du Pre.  This does not mean that Belohlavek cannot muster significant force in the crescendos and tuttis, say, in his first emotional outburst in the G Major second movement Adagio.

The conductor’s long familiarity with the score makes every sonic detail pertinent to the whole, especially as Dvorak’s interior voices constantly evoke pastoral and sometimes tragic elements. Unfortunately, the producers do not identify Weilerstein’s superb instrument; but in the second movement her fluidly large and expressive tone proves ravishing in its elegiac song, itself interrupted by a passing reference to Josefina’s favorite “Lasst mich allein” that the composer twice quotes in the course of the Concerto.  The crisp attack, relatively free of ostentatious vibrato, with which Weilerstein opens the Finale: Allegro moderato, begins a marvelous collision of disparate forces, not the least of which involve Belohlavek’s inflamed woodwinds and tympani.

The momentum of the third movement again flows with an authority and fervor that compel repeated hearings. Weilersten’s cello seems to muse in a world of flowers, birds, and vivid landscapes. How frequently we feel the influence of Schubert’s harmonically rich song-sensibility on this Concerto, even though the composer openly acknowledged a debt to Victor Herbert.  The late interchanges between Weilerstein and the CPO flute – and then the principal violin – more than compensate for the price of admission. The last pages bristle with a rare alchemy of lyric and bravura digital facility. Of course, no performance of worth misses the chance to capture that “and so my children” quality of Dvorak’s epilogues in his late works. They attach a moral significance known more directly by the child in us all than to our adult perceptions. And it with that “childlike wonder” that our principals close this most perfect of all cello concertos.

Weilerstein and pianist Anna Polonsky recorded the lovely “fillers” at the American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York (5-6 April 2013). The haunted song “Leave me alone,” so dear to Dvorak’s beloved and to his concerto tribute, receives a touching realization, lilted at every turn. The 1891 Rondo in G Minor casts both a gypsy and somber glow at once, and Weilerstein captures its elegiac poise as much as she fashions its more impishly virtuosic outer sections. Much in the Feuermann tradition, she exploits a passionately direct attack that plays with the phrases in pushes and pulls, as she chooses. The arrangement of “Goin’ Home” plays to those who sentimentalize over the New World Symphony second movement.  Anyone recall Jan Clayton’s rendition of the William Arms Fisher song in the movie The Snake Pit? The cello treatment by John Lenehan permits Weilerstein a sweet line or long-held, resonant tone in virtually every one of the cello’s registers.

Mischa Elman used to play Songs My Mother Taught Me as a sentimental vehicle for his old-world violin artistry. Weilerstein, too, makes it sound as if Jane Wyatt were once more active in the 1944 film None but the Lonely Heart. More fascinating is the No. 5 from Dvorak’s 1894 collection of  pieces “From the Bohemian Forests,” Klid (or Silent Woods).  The melodic line references Wagner’s Tristan at various points, splicing to a bucolic landscape a tumultuous passion. The music at its mid-point becomes a waltz that bears comparison with Tchaikovsky of Evgeny Onegin. The musical gambit of G Minor/Major makes its final appearance in the marvelous furiant of Op. 46, No. 8, the Slavonic Dance that concludes that earlier of the two sets of dances. The busy cello line and swelling, insistent chords from Polonsky’s keyboard attest to an athletic as well as aesthetic partnership of superb musicianship.

—Gary Lemco

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