RACHMANINOV: Cello Sonata in g minor, Op. 19; Vocalise, Op. 34, No. 14 (ed. Wallfisch); CHOPIN: Cello Sonata in g minor, Op. 65; Etude in c-sharp minor; Intro and Polonaise brillante in C Major – Alisa Weilerstein, c./ Inon Barntan, p. – Decca

RACHMANINOV: Cello Sonata in g minor, Op. 19; Vocalise, Op. 34, No. 14 (ed. Wallfisch); CHOPIN: Cello Sonata in g minor, Op. 65; Etude in c-sharp minor, Op. 25, No. 7 (arr. Franchomme); Introduction and Polonaise brillante in C Major, Op. 3 (ed. Rose) – Alisa Weilerstein, c./ Inon Barntan, p. – Decca 478 8416, 80:54 (10/2/15) [Distr. by Universal] ****:

The two cello sonatas, respectively by Chopin and Rachmaninov, share a kind of parallel universe: both sonatas are written in the same key; both sonatas represent the last such composition in the genre; and each resulted from a friendship with a cellist whom the composers credited for the impulse to create it. For Rachmaninov, his best man at his wedding, cellist Anatoly Brandukov, inspired much of the idiomatic cello writing. The Cello Sonata, along with the famous Piano Concerto No. 2 (1901), emerges after a severe spiritual drought that only a protracted session of hypnotherapy with a Dr. Dahl could alleviate. But having been freed from whatever creative blocks he suffered, the Cello Sonata sings with an ardent passion unhampered by self-doubt.

Alisa Weilerstein and Inon Barnaton (rec. 21-23 November 2014) bring their own fervent enthusiasm to the Rachmaninov Sonata, especially in the luscious secondary tune that occupies the middle of the fiery Allegro scherzando, whose Slavic melody contrasts with the heated 12/8 growls from the cello in the outer sections. With such passionate, committed playing before us now, we must lament that Horowitz and Piatagorsky never set this fine piece down to commercial records. The Andante in E-flat Major achieves a personal vista of expressive longing and Russian religious doxology at once, a reminder that this sonata represents the composer’s final essay in chamber music. The finale, Allegro mosso, G Major, exerts the composer’s bravura style, the piano’s indulging in blistering runs and resounding dynamics that could overpower the cello. One of Rachmaninov’s more exuberant melodies suddenly arises, rife with his patented nostalgia. The progression, now in salon style, now symphonic style, moves to a dazzling coda that fully satisfies the principals’ need for the individual spotlight while seamlessly combining in a grand collaboration.

The ever-popular 1912 Vocalise has likely never had a more “authentic” performance on record than that of Anna Moffo and Leopold Stokowski on RCA.  Naturally, the wordless song has had an infinite number of transcriptions (there’s a whole RCA CD of various versions of it…Ed.), and Weilerstein’s cello version with a subtle, soft Barnaton at the keyboard works as well as any. Weilerstein’s 1790 Forster instrument receives gold-star treatment under the sonic guidance of Friedemann Engelbrecht production talents.

Frederic Chopin’s 1846 Cello Sonata marks his last completed composition, receiving the composer’s judgment as “finished” in 1847. At this juncture in his creative output, Chopin’s notion of harmonic development had become thoroughly idiosyncratic and contrapuntal, without his having sacrificed any of his natural capacity for instrumental song.  In the opening Allegro moderato, Chopin deliberately delays cadential resolutions while weaving a potent tapestry for both performers.  Often, Weilerstein’s cello soars in a solo aria before the keyboard adds its own glistening luster.  The degree of modulation Chopin applies defies so-called “classical” expectation, and he decides upon the second theme to employ in variation as means to recapitulate and conclude a fiery series of grand gestures.

Given a rhythmic pulse in the manner of an insistent mazurka, the second movement Scherzo indulges in flights of wit and erotic dalliance, with keyboard bell effects that Tchaikovsky would steal for his Nutcracker ballet. The music suddenly evolves as a luxurious waltz, a virtual moment from Degas in D Major.  The canonic third movement, Lento, likely set the tone for Cesar Franck’s later Violin Sonata in A. Weilerstein will rise to a glorious height before returning to our mortal coils. The Finale proffers a Mediterranean dance, the tarantella, much in the Mendelssohn spirit.  Lusty and impulsive, Barnaton’s piano threatens to run away with the garlands, but Weilerstein counters with a lyricism not to be denied. The suave collaboration proceeds to a tender moment before the heated gallop that hesitates only for one further announcement of the lilted second tune.

Chopin originally dismissed his 1829 Polonaise brillante (with an added Introduction by cellist friend Auguste Franchomme) as “empty salon glitter.”  Cellists, nevertheless, have found the piece a satisfying vehicle, such as Rostropovich, Starker, and Maisky; so that Weilerstein makes it sing and dance with convincing fervor comes as little surprise.  The Etude in c-sharp minor from Op. 25 endures as one of Chopin’s most tragic, compressed utterances.  Arranged for cello, the work gains an effective and plaintive voice, the cello cantilena an unbroken line of plangent meditation.

—Gary Lemco

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